In recognition of Latinx Heritage Month, MoFo partner Claudia Vetesi recently hosted a webinar with Efrén C. Olivares, a leading immigration lawyer currently serving as the Immigrant Justice Deputy Legal Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and author of My Boy Will Die of Sorrow.
Early on, after working in Big Law, Efrén was focused on civil rights, doing legal work near the Texas border where his family was located. It wasn’t until April 2018, as a result of the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy on unauthorized immigration, that Efrén became much more involved in immigration rights. Under this “no tolerance” policy, all migrants—including asylum seekers—attempting to cross the U.S. border anywhere other than an official port of entry were to be detained and criminally prosecuted. This resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents at the border.
As a result of this separation policy, Efrén got involved on the frontlines and started visiting the families at the border. He and his paralegal would take down the individuals’ information in order to track separated families since the government failed to do so.
“In this case, cruelty met incompetence, with very poor documentation and no process in place by the government,” stated Efrén.
In addition, parents often didn’t realize immediately that their children were separated from them; they were told that they would meet their children back at border patrol when they returned. Efrén informed parents of the reality that no one knew exactly when or where they would see their children again. The greatest concern was that parents would be deported, and children would be placed in a shelter or in foster care with no record. Still, through Efrén’s human rights work, he interviewed 380+ separated families and was able to place the majority with pro bono lawyers.
Further complicating matters, in March 2020 the Trump administration invoked Title 42—part of the Public Health Service Act of 1944 that aimed at preventing the spread of communicable diseases in the country—for the first time since its creation as a means to stop the spread of COVID-19. The policy, according to Efrén, was unjustly used as an immigration tactic rather than as a public safety measure. Many more migrants were expelled because of Title 42, even when evidence lacked showing that the policy would slow the virus’ spread in the United States.
Twenty-five years earlier, Efrén was separated from his own father for several years when he migrated to the United States to work. Efrén’s memoir, My Boy Will Die of Sorrow, combines his clients’ enthralling stories with stories of his own childhood, and also reflects on the history of U.S. immigration policy.
Inspiration for the title of his memoir is attributed to Efrén’s first day in court visiting detained families, when he interviewed one of the fathers separated from his children. When asked what he thought his son would think when finding out reunification with his father was unknown, the father said to Efrén, “My boy will die of sorrow.”
While it shines a light on the persecution and hostility faced by immigrant families, his book also provides deep perspective to the power of empathy and compassion for fellow human beings and the effect it has on public opinion. Shortly after an audio file of young children crying incessantly for their separated parents was leaked and made public, the “Zero Tolerance” policy changed, no longer allowing families to be separated at the border.
“In hearing the audio file, no one could see the color of the children’s skin, and this allowed people to feel their pain at a visceral level and express empathy towards this cruelty,” explained Efrén.
Learn more about Efrén Olivares and his memoir.