Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

As soon as I realized that this middle grade fiction book was about illegal immigrants from Mexico and particularly about the plight of children brought to the U.S. by their parents, I was looking for a political bias or for an author with an axe to grind. And I found it. This story was unabashedly sympathetic to the difficulties and even horrors experienced by these economic immigrants, and it had a message. From the author’s letter to readers at the end of the book:

“Many farmers from Mexico and Central America are forced to come north to work because they can no longer earn a living from farming. They make the dangerous border crossing with smugglers called coyotes, who charge them a lot of money and often take advantage. . . . National troops are being sent down to patrol the border. We are treating these neighbor countries and migrant helpers as if they were our worst enemies.”

I could argue with some of what Ms. Alvarez says. (Forced? We shouldn’t patrol our own border? Maybe some of them are our worst enemies?) However, I couldn’t help finding my own sympathies engaged with the immigrants in the story who are, I believe, emblematic of most of the immigrants who do come to the U.S. Mari and her family come to North Carolina, then to Vermont, in search of simple things: work, a place to live, and opportunity. Mari’s father, uncle, and cousin are hard workers, content with low pay and long hours and a difficult job on a dairy farm. Mari herself is an intelligent, obedient child who just wants to do well in school and take care of her little sisters in the absence of her mother.

Because Return to Sender is a novel, not an essay or a working paper, Ms. Alvarez only has to tell a good story and present more than one aspect of the issue. She fulfills that task. I didn’t feel as if I were being preached at or tricked into believing that all immigrants should be allowed free rein in the U.S. even though the author rather obviously believes something of the sort. The book is written partly from the point of view of Mari, who quickly becomes a sympathetic character, and partly from the viewpoint of Tyler, the eleven year old son of the farmer for whom Mari’s family, the Cruzes, work. Tyler’s feelings and actions are conflicted. He doesn’t understand why his parents are willing to break the law in hiring illegal immigrants even while they tell him that he must obey the laws and rules to be a good citizen. He doesn’t know what to do about his sympathy for Mari’s family and his respect for the law of the land. Tyler even does something he knows is wrong while justifying it to himself with excuses, unintentionally mirroring his parents’ actions. Tyler ultimately falls on the side of compassion and friendship for Mari and her family but not without some bumps along the way.

Tyler, his parents, Tyler’s grandmother who also befriends the Cruz family, the elderly anti-immigration Mr. Rossetti, even Mari and her family, none of them ever resolve the underlying questions that the novel raises. What do we, the United States, do about the thousands of illegal immigrants who cross the border every year? Can we find a way to accommodate them, allow them to work here, and still maintain some kind of security that keeps criminals and terrorists out? Are these immigrants an asset to our country and our work force that should be welcomed or a drain on our resources that should be shunned and criminalized? What about the children who come the United States with their parents or who are born in this country to parents who are here illegally? How can we be compassionate as a people and still maintain the rule of law? What should individuals who are confronted with these situations do? Is it morally wrong, even if it is illegal, to hire people who want to work and whose work you need to keep your business or farm going? Is it morally wrong for people to cross a border to find work? Would you do the same thing if your family were living in poverty with no other way out?

Ms. Alvarez doesn’t really have answers for those questions. I don’t either. But we had better start talking about them seriously and effectively. This novel might be a good start to that conversation for middle school children, particularly if a teacher or other adult can bring out all the nuances and conflicting opinions on this issue. Yes, the book is biased in favor of the open immigration, and it repeated the obligatory, but annoying, slogan of the environmentalists: “we are citizens of the world, and you can save the planet.” Still, the characters and the plot are engaging, and the book could provoke a good, healthy discussion.

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One or more of these books is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own.

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