Review: The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, by Lauren Markham

[1] My “awakening” to the poor and oppressed of Central America and Mexico and the relationship of that to U.S., policy, is easily traced to my travel with the Augsburg College Center for Global Education to Mexico and Nicaragua, in 1982.  Almost immediately after, I sought a Tex-Mex border experience, and then found the local Overground Railroad chapter, which led to years of hosting refugees  from the Central American civil wars.   Then, around 2007, I was awakened to the plight of Southern border immigrants who were experiencing deportation and detention, and I joined into responsive advocacy with a newly–forming Minnesota organization.

[2] By 2016 I was increasingly concerned as the numbers of Central Americans needing to escape their situations had risen rapidly, especially unaccompanied minors.  The ELCA’s AMMPARO Program (Accompanying Minor Migrants with Advocacy, Protection, Representation and Opportunity) summarizes the causes and statistics. Migrant children flee their homelands due to violence, economic desperation, flooding and drought/climate change. The numbers peaked in 2014 when 70,000 unaccompanied minors from the Central American Northern Triangle reached the border. In fiscal 2018 it was down to 50,000 unaccompanied minors, but family numbers were skyrocketing.

[3] As soon as I heard about the book The Far Away Brothers I hoped it would deepen my understanding of the causes and perils of Central American flight. I was not disappointed.

[4] Lauren Markham tells the harrowing true story of the Flores brothers (names have been changed) who crossed the border in 2013. Her strong relationship with the twin brothers, careful research and interviews, and travels to the brothers’ home in El Salvador yield a compelling book of personal drama infused with illuminating facts and analysis about the push and pull factors for Central American migration as it intersects with U.S. policies.

[5] Raul’s & Ernesto’s family was not only poor, they lived in a small town tormented by gang threats and recruitment. They had a difficult family history and a paranoid uncle whose murderous threats caused one twin to flee, followed closely by his brother who realized their identical appearance made him equally vulnerable.

[6] An older brother who had previously migrated to California agreed to take them in. They relied on a coyote for their journey but the plan to repay the coyote’s costs (plus interest) was unrealistic, and would continue to place real pressure on the whole family on both sides of the border throughout the book.

[7] The fleeing boys faced harrowing experiences including being confronted by the uncle’s thugs in Guatemala and falling on the body of dead migrant in the Texas desert.  Such experiences haunted the twins even after they started a new life in the United States.  After a grueling trek of four days in the desert, they were picked up by border control and spent two months in detention while their older brother officially arranged to sponsor them.

[8] The older brother’s living situation is not easy.  As a laborer, he has little energy or time and he’s not much help with the boys’ legal requirements, which need to be addressed before they turn 18.  The high school they’re assigned to is for migrant youth, and the caring staff is key to their survival. Markham, as their counselor, finds and takes them to the last attorney willing to take their kind of case (for either asylum or “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status”).  She supports and encourages them through the many emotional responses to all the trauma and adjustments they’ve been through.

[9] Adding to their stress is the constant stream of Facebook and phone messages from their older sister in El Salvador, reminding them that the interest on their loan is threatening the loss of family land.  The boys have to find work and save.  They do find work, and try to balance employment, school and the social strains of adolescence, while battling the demons from the frightening experiences of their short lives. Drinking and self-injury are among the responses.   Just before turning 18 the boys are granted legal status and receive their green cards. They are able to afford a small apartment by themselves, but before they graduate, one twin impregnates his young girlfriend.  Despite initial rejection from the girlfriend’s mother, the family comes together as they share the awe of new life.  The telling of their story ends as all three brothers, the mother and baby seek an apartment together.

[10] The life of the older sister, stuck in El Salvador, is also followed by Markham throughout the book.  Before her brothers leave, she seeks a boyfriend through a televised match program, and by the time the book ends, she’s had 2 children with different partners, is regularly physically and verbally abused by a drunken older brother, threatened extortion by strangers, and takes on the financial responsibility of paying the interest on the coyote loan, with funds sent occasionally by her brothers.  She wonders if she should go North too.

[11] Markham conveys the intersecting complexity of the causes of the family’s struggles: poverty, lack of birth control, the proliferation of gangs, and lack of government or police support.  There was no mention of a church or of community organizing in their small town/rural surroundings, and no evidence of helpful friends.  The twins clearly loved their parents and felt great guilt at their inability to send enough money back.

[12] While Markham focuses primarily on the present, the U.S. foreign policy background looms large. The U.S. is reaping, in increased Central American immigration, what it sowed in supporting oppressive regimes; siding with El Salvador’s and Guatemala’s military in the 1980’s war; providing harmful military aid to Honduras; and deporting El Salvadoran gangs formed by the youth of Los Angeles’ streets in the 1990’s. Knowledgeable followers of El Salvador push for foreign aid to support jobs, youth and civil/human rights development as well as to enable response to the droughts and flooding.

[13] It is the stories of these brothers, and many like them that I’ve known over the years, that have helped me to engage in meaningful action with others.  Most recently, we have started an AMMPARO support group in my church, reaching out to struggling unaccompanied minors in our metropolitan area.  Similarly, it is these stories that drive me and others in our Inter-faith Coalition to keep focusing on advocacy and support for detention reform, and for immigrant detainees in our state.  We increasingly support them at their hearings in immigration court, where court-watch and weekly vigils have developed.  Our local coalitions assist detainee families and help Central Americans and others get settled in Sanctuary. In all this, we are guided by the message shared by the sacred texts of all major religions, “Welcome the stranger.”

[14] Given the current climate surrounding national immigration policy, it seems to be the local inter-faith and secular justice groups, the many active immigrant groups, and the faithful national immigration advocacy groups, that keep up the fight for policy change and justice.  This book provides inspiration, insight, and information that can spark, and then fuel, the energies of those wishing to engage this work.

Joy Nelson

Joy Nelson lives in Minneapolis, MN and is an activist for Immigration Justice.