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'My Boy Will Die of Sorrow': Lawyer recounts family border separations, his own immigration story

Author Efrén C. Olivares represented families who were separated under the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy in 2018. He shares what he saw and his own immigration story in his book, “My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration From the Front Lines.” It was recently awarded the 2023 International Latino Book Award in the category of best political/current affairs book.

Here & Now‘s Deepa Fernandes speaks with Olivares, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project.

Book excerpt: ‘My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration From the Front Lines’

By Efrén C. Olivares

Borders separate. Borders divide and alienate. Borders make some feel secure, others trapped. Borders rise up and dissolve. Borders appear, disappear, reappear, and shift, sometimes slowly over decades and centuries, sometimes overnight. The Rio Grande River, which demarcates part of the boundary between the United States and Mexico, shifted its course time and again—taking the border with it— until the 1970s, when the two countries agreed to fix the line for good with coordinates in a treaty. The river that served as a natural boundary turned out to be a poor marker to achieve the political purpose of a border: to separate. The U.S.- Mexico border, wrote Gloria Anzaldúa in the opening chapter of Borderlands/La Frontera, is an open wound, “una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again.”

MY BOY WILL DIE OF SORROW explores this “bleeding” from a deeply personal perspective, a bleeding that sometimes gushes out violently, as it did in 2018, and other times slows down to a trickle. But it never stops.

In the summer of 2018, I found myself representing hundreds of immigrant families separated at the Texas- Mexico border under the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy. That policy called for the mandatory prosecution of every person who crossed the border without authorization, charging them with the misdemeanor crime of illegal entry, or, if they had been deported before, the felony of illegal reentry. Zero Tolerance led to thousands of children being separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border, and I interviewed dozens of these parents and heard first- hand how Border Patrol agents took their children from them through deceit, subterfuge, and sometimes outright violence.

Twenty- five years earlier, I had been separated from my father when he migrated to the United States to look for work. He emigrated first, and the rest of us stayed behind, seeing him only when he was able to visit, but without him in the day‑to‑day of our lives in Mexico. For four years, we saw my father only occasionally, until we were finally able to join him. In 2018, it took me months to fully appreciate the extent to which the separation I lived when I was just a boy has informed the work I did, and continue to do, for immigrant families.

Although being without my father was not easy, my experience pales in comparison to those I have heard from my clients over the years. Like millions before us, we migrated out of economic necessity, in search of work and a better future. We were not fleeing violence, death threats, or persecution. To the extent migrating to the United States was a choice, it could be said that my family chose to be separated. The circumstances pushed us to migrate, and the law forced us to be separated, but if it was a choice at all, we had the “privilege” of choosing to be apart. By contrast, the hundreds of immigrant families I encountered in federal court in McAllen, Texas, had no say in the separation whatsoever: our government forced the separations upon them. What my family and I lived in four years of an episodic and voluntary separation, these families experienced in an intense, compelled, and violent rupture. And they were powerless to prevent it.

In this book, I strive to tell their stories as accurately as they shared them with me, and as faithfully as I lived through those weeks and months. In telling their stories, I also share part of my own, and reflect on what borders do to families. Whether over many years or in a flash, the effects borders have on those they separate are long- lasting. Sometimes it is the physical, geographical border, sometimes it is the legal and psychological, the indeterminable border between identities, cultures, and statuses that Anzaldúa so powerfully explored, “at the edge where earth touches ocean / where the two overlap / a gentle coming together / at other times and places a violent clash.”

This book is about the suffering and resilience of those who find themselves separated by a border. My hope is that it will stir us to question the foundation of our immigration laws, and push us to reimagine our understanding of political borders and those who cross them into one that is more humane for individuals, for families, and for communities on both sides.

Excerpted from”My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration From the Front Lines” by Efrén Olivares. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.  

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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