A memoir of immigration from the front lines
In ‘My Boy Will Die of Sorrow,’ Efrén C. Olivares explores the plight immigrants endure once they enter the U.S. Immigration System
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In the Summer of 2018, Efrén C. Olivares, a human rights lawyer, found himself representing hundreds of immigrant families when a zero tolerance U.S. immigration policy separated thousands of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Twenty-five years earlier, he had been separated from his own father for several years when he migrated to the U.S. to work. Their family, who lived in Allende, Mexico, a town about three hours from the Texas border, was eventually reunited in Texas, where Efrén and his brother went to high school and learned a new language and culture. He realized that although his family wasn’t forcibly torn apart, his too was a story of family separation. And he wondered how that story may have ended differently in 2018.
“I could have been one of those children. I could have been one of those parents, depending on the time when we immigrated,” Olivares said in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser.
Through his new book, My Boy Will Die of Sorrow, Olivares wants readers to see how “chaotic and dysfunctional” moving to the U.S. can be. He hopes they’ll probe their own attitudes toward those whose lives are impacted by immigration policy and walk away with a little more compassion.
“Why is it that we don't feel compassionate empathy for some people, and we feel it for others? What are these arbitrary reasons?,” he asked, as reported by the Montgomery Advertiser.
By sharing these gripping family separation stories alongside his own, Olivares gives voice to immigrants who have been punished and silenced for seeking safety and opportunity. Through him we meet Mario and his daughter Oralia, Viviana and her son Sandro, Patricia and her son Alessandro, and many others. We see how the principles that ostensibly bind the U.S. together fall apart at its borders.
My Boy Will Die of Sorrow reflects on the immigrant experience then and now, on what separations do to families, and how the act of separation itself adds another layer to the immigrant identity. Our concern for fellow human beings who live at the margins of our society—at the border, literally and figuratively—is shaped by how we view ourselves in relation both to our fellow citizens and to immigrants. He discusses not only law and immigration policy in accessible terms, but also makes the case for how this hostility is nothing new: children were put in cages when coming through Ellis Island, and Japanese Americans were forcibly separated from their families and interned during WWII. By examining his personal story and the stories of the families he represents side-by-side, Olivares meaningfully engages readers with their assumptions about what nationhood means in America and challenges readers to question their own empathy and compassion.
Currently, Olivares is the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. The project focuses on ending immigrant detention, including through its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, a program that provides pro bono legal representation to detained immigrants at immigration detention centers in the Deep South. Olivares and his team also defend workers’ rights, ensure local policing is not entangled with immigration enforcement, seek family reunification and protect the rights of asylum seekers.