Place of refuge?

Just Like Us is a story for Colorado and SF

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LIT If you've been tracking the battle over San Francisco's sanctuary ordinance, or you're simply interested in the fight for immigration reform at the federal level, then check out Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America (Scribner, 400 pages, $27.99). Written by Helen Thorp, a journalist married to Denver mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper, Just Like Us is the true story of four young girls whom Thorp tracked for five years, starting with their senior year in high school.

"All had at least one parent who entered the country from Mexico without the right documentation," Thorp says over the phone. "One was born here; one had a green card; and two didn't have papers, so they were split down the middle on their legal status — through no fault of their own — but because of a situation they inherited." This split led to differing experiences as all four girls came of age in the United States, even though all excelled in public high school.

"Two of them didn't have the same opportunities, privileges, or even ways to pay for college as the two with papers had," Thorp explains, noting that she changed the names of all four students to protect their identities. The main narrative of Thorp's book sticks closely to the experiences of these four exemplary girls — including the political firestorm that broke out in Denver (and spread statewide) after an undocumented Denver resident committed a violent crime.

The echoes for San Francisco are obvious. The slaying in 2008 of three members of the Bologna family by the alleged killer Edwin Ramos, an immigrant who repeatedly passed through the city's justice system as a juvenile, increased the heat in a political firestorm that had been crackling since the city passed its City of Refuge ordinance in 1989 and burst into flames in December 2007. That was when federal agents intercepted San Francisco probation officers at a Houston airport as they tried to repatriate Honduran teenagers by flying them home instead of reporting them for formal federal deportation.

In the Denver-based story Thorp recounts in Just Like Us, a young man who never had much schooling and was in Colorado without the necessary paperwork shot two police officers at a party, killing one. To add to the intrigue, the man was employed as a dishwasher at a restaurant owned in part by Thorp's husband.

"It certainly was a heinous crime, since this young man shot two police officers in the back," Thorp recalls. "Even the Mexican immigrant community was horrified, and no one rallied to his side. He was disrupting a baptismal party for a Mexican family in a popular social hall. He destroyed the celebration and he had a young daughter, who he essentially ended up abandoning, when he went to jail. He had lived in Los Angeles — that's where he purchased the gun — and may have had gang ties. That, at least, was what was alleged at his sentencing. He shot the police officers because he felt one of them had insulted him and allegedly had mishandled him. His pride was wounded, but his response was so aggravated, there was no justification for it."

As a result of this tragedy, which touched one of the high school students she was tracking, Thorp ended up becoming close to the widow of the police officer. "His family had an immigrant background, and he grew up in a Spanish-speaking family — though that was not reported in the media — and his widow's mother was an immigrant from England who kept her green card and never became a citizen," Thorp continues. "So the widow ended up having an incredibly nuanced point of view and would comment on what happened to her family with more grace and generosity than you would ever expect a human being to muster in those circumstances."