Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders by Leisy J. Abrego (review)
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Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders. By Leisy J. Abrego. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. xvi, 250. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Appendix. $70.00 cloth; $21.95 paper.

Debates about immigration in the United States—whether in public discourse or among policymakers—tend toward the facile. Rather than capturing the complexities of migration and transnational families, discussions often devolve into sweeping generalizations, framed simplistically in terms of “right” or “wrong,” or, particularly [End Page 681] damaging, dehumanizing migrants and their loved ones. In her thoughtful and well-researched book about Salvadoran migration to the United States, Leisy J. Abrego counters these narratives. Positing “family reunification as a matter of human rights,” her extensive research points to the urgency for “truly humane and inclusive comprehensive immigration reform” (p. 188). Abrego also shows how a focus on the aggregate hides realities on the ground, the very lives of migrants that she so skillfully recounts.

And yet, although the research uncovers the everyday experiences of families, another contribution of the book is precisely its focus on larger political and economic forces. We see the entanglements of family life and structural power, how migrants “bear the burden of national development” (p. 187) and experience “inequalities across transnational families” (p. 4). Such inequalities are particularly evident along two axes of power—the production of “il/legality” in the United States and the gendered aspects of movement across borders. As Abrego argues, the difficulties securing “economic and emotional well-being” (p. 12) reveal the deep sacrifices that individual migrants must make but also the larger context within which migrations take place.

States are responsible for much of the suffering families experience before, during, and after migration. Key players include the governments of El Salvador, Mexico, and—especially through the categorization of immigrants—the United States. Unlike popular notions that migrants are either “legal” or “illegal,” there is considerable nuance as Salvadorans move in and out of different statuses. The immigration status of undocumented migrants can change; those with Temporary Protected Status may lose it. A legal permanent resident of the United States can be deported. Shifting statuses are difficult for all, but Abrego demonstrates particular vulnerability among those without authorization to be in the United States. As one migrant so aptly explains, “it breaks you down” (p. 81). The production of illegality has a cumulative effect—on border crossings, housing, work opportunities, and above all, movement between nations.

Gender, too, plays a central role in the ways people migrate and the outcomes they experience. There are specific reasons men and women migrate and differences in their lives after migration. For example, Abrego outlines what at first seems counterintuitive: although women migrants make lower wages than men, they remit more. But Abrego carefully explains this paradox through an analysis of the gendered ways that migrants construct responsibility to family. In particular, men see themselves as financial providers, whereas women understand their role as primary caregivers above all, a clear bind for mothers who must migrate. Not surprisingly, like so many spheres of social life, migrant men experience more flexibility in terms of gendered expectations while women are bound to narrower ideals of how they are to perform and connect with others.

The inequalities parents face have implications for both individual children and the next generation. Not protected by any one government, migrants collectively find themselves within “an environment of utter impunity” (p. 67). All migrants and their [End Page 682] families—regardless of resources, citizenship, or gender—must sacrifice. Abrego’s question, “Is family separation worth it?” (p. 183), was difficult if not impossible for most migrants to answer. When migration is one’s only option or “last hope” (p. 196), is it actually an option?

Fittingly, Abrego in her conclusion considers what we as a nation are willing to do “to stop the sacrificing of these families” (p. 196). The book challenges readers to consider immigration from a new perspective. A “shamefully unequal global economy” (p. 188) is sustained in large part through the struggles of transnational families, calling for a reconsideration of rights—the right of migrants to move across borders but also the right to not...