Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Immigration reform is a really big issue in my religious congregation and in my denomination. We’ve been studying the issue and hearing immigrants’ stories and planning actions. So when I saw that I’d won a review copy of Kind of Kin, I was especially excited. Of course it’s fiction, but I think fiction is a great way (often the best way) to explore the what-ifs and the motivations of those involved in a very complex issue.
I appreciate that Askew didn’t resort to making her characters all good or all bad (except maybe Sheriff Holloway, who seemed pretty lacking in redeeming qualities). They were nuanced and complicated, their lives messy and not easily classified, just like real people. I loved her explanation of how Bob Brown came to have a barnful of migrant workers and of the difficult position in which people find themselves when the system provides no reasonable way for them to remain in the United States legally.
I would have preferred a little more focus on those immigrants who entered the country legally and, because of the backlog and bias within the United States immigration system, end up overstaying their visas with their renewal or green card applications pending; with no way to work legally or get a driver’s license; with family, community, and a life built here in the U.S. This is the situation in which the majority of undocumented immigrants find themselves, and the situation of several of my friends who came here for school or for work and followed all of the rules only to find themselves threatened with deportation and paying thousands of dollars to immigration attorneys to try to stay here. This is the story of most undocumented immigrants, not the more dramatic sneaking-across-the-border means of getting here that Askew represented more thoroughly in her novel.
I would also have liked a description of the abuses that the current immigration system promotes among employers of immigrants. Employers routinely withhold wages or underpay their immigrant employees and threaten them with deportation if they complain. Many migrant workers’ visas are tied to their place of employment and if their employer withdraws its support, they are no longer in the country legally.
Askew could also have gone into more detail about the many detention centers where immigrants sit for months or sometimes years in prison-like conditions, with no lawyer, no charges, and no contact with their families while awaiting deportation hearings or even just a review of their immigration status. One young man who spoke to our congregation had a pending immigration application when he was picked up for a driving infraction. He ended up being detained for five months before immigration finally determined that he was allowed to remain here while his paperwork was processed.
But of course, you can’t put all of those things in one novel, and Askew chose to focus on the passage of a realistic but fictional anti-immigration law in Oklahoma, one which makes it a felony to give aid to undocumented immigrants. This fictional law falls into the category of newer laws in states like Alabama that attempt to create an environment hostile to all immigrants in the hopes that this will encourage “self-deportation.” Askew does a very good job of demonstrating the ease with which officials can abuse such a law for their own power and personal gain. And I love that she had a second bill which included a forfeiture of property clause. This is part of current drug laws and makes it so someone who is merely accused of a particular crime can have any or all of their property seized by local law enforcement with essentially no chance to get it back, even if they are found not guilty. (I’ll note here that immigration violations are not criminal violations.)
My primary complaint with this book, though, is with the climactic standoff. This scene was very powerfully written and I found it quite moving, but I kept thinking, “Hey, if he doesn’t have a search warrant, he can’t go in there anyway. Why doesn’t anyone ask for a warrant?”
So, I loved the book for bringing up such a huge and mostly invisible issue, and for the character development (especially of Sweet and Dustin), and for the very lovely and sympathetic Señor Celayo. I felt disappointed that it wasn’t…more, but it’s a great start. I hope more authors take up this issue and help to foster discussion and interaction with those touched by immigration—which, once we start looking, I think we’ll find includes most of us.
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