Book Reviews

The Immigration Gordian Knot

Immigration outcomes are often portrayed as a product of U.S. policy and will. The real story is more complicated—and more tragic.

By Dara Lind

Tagged immigration

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis by Jonathan Blitzer • Penguin Press • 2024 • 544 pages • $32

You would be forgiven for assuming that Jonathan Blitzer’s Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here had suffered the unfortunate fate of being swallowed by its own timeliness. The book came out as the White House and Senate were negotiating an immigration bill that President Joe Biden promised would give him authority to “shut down” the U.S.-Mexico border. In the frenzy of a congressional news cycle, the context offered by Blitzer’s book—a work of narrative nonfiction covering 50 years of U.S. immigration and foreign policy through the eyes of Central American migrants—was a luxury no one had time for.

And then, nearly as soon as the text of the bill was made public, the whole thing collapsed: Donald Trump had warned congressional Republicans that giving Biden a “win” on immigration would blunt the impact of Trump’s preferred campaign theme (“animals” are coming across the border to kill you), and so they had decided that the border crisis wasn’t so bad as to require them to do anything about it. Immigration went from being too urgent an issue to have time to learn about to being a back-burner issue not worth reading up on.

In reality, Blitzer’s book was in no danger of being overtaken by the events on Capitol Hill, because it already had been overtaken by events. The era of unauthorized migration it chronicles, in which (in the words of the book jacket) the “overwhelming” share of people come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, has passed into history just as surely as the era of overwhelmingly Mexican migration that preceded it. There is no good case that upon finishing this book, the reader will suddenly understand the current “border crisis”—much less that he will have ideas for how to “solve” it.

The case for reading this book is, indeed, that it might stop the reader from expecting any book about immigration to deliver these things—from seeing immigration as an issue that can be easily grasped or permanently solved, and inevitably losing patience when it turns out not to be. It’s the sort of work that, by telling a few stories exquisitely well, makes it clear that countless other stories remain untold.

What Blitzer does in Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here—especially in the book’s first half, which is as thoughtful and gripping as any reported work you’re likely to read this year—is tell a story of policy as something that emerges not as an expression of eternal political will, in a mechanistic relationship in which what happens is always what the United States wants to happen, but as the sum of a series of individual choices that are made over time and in reaction to one another. Those choices are not made by governments as abstract entities. They are made by government actors—individuals who are often at odds with each other and whose choices sometimes backfire. They are also made by migrants themselves. And all those choices are shaped by the circumstances of times and places—including not only the political realities of the United States, but also of the countries from which migrants originate and through which they travel.

This is a book where history matters, where the unforeseen, if hardly unforeseeable, consequences of today’s response lead to the next crisis years from now. Blitzer’s characters observe the world around them, have debates with themselves, and make choices—however constrained by circumstance—that they have to live with.

That may not sound revelatory. It is pretty much the standard model for policy reporting at The New Yorker, where Blitzer has served as a staff writer since 2017. But it’s so far beyond the way immigration is discussed right now that to try to make it seem “relevant” to the debate is like trying to draw an eleven-dimensional space on a piece of paper.

To say that the book argues that over the last 50 years, the United States and Central America have been thoroughly entangled—first by the Cold War and then by post-9/11 immigration politics—with consequences that have shaped millions of people’s lives would be a true statement. But it would also be a disservice. The most powerful argument the book makes is in the way the story is told. Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here is a story about how people try to build meaningful lives for themselves within the context of that entanglement—how they seek to shape history for the better, or to resist being shaped by it for the worse. It presents, in other words, the radical argument that both migration flows and the governments that seek to control them are made of people.

Immigration occupies a place in the American political imagination that is metaphysically impoverished—it is outside time, space, or causality.

There is only one time: the current moment, in which nothing has ever been as bad as it is right now. (The fact that, last winter, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border hit record levels might have resonated differently if it hadn’t been, by my fairly conservative estimate, the sixth “border crisis” news cycle of the last decade. And it might have played out differently if government officials had been asked, at any point, what lessons they had learned from the prior five “crises.”)

There is only one place: the U.S.-Mexico border, often shorthanded as “the border.” At the debate’s most simplistic, “the border” is treated as synecdoche for immigration as a phenomenon and a policy area. Both immigration hawks and doves talk about the harms of the status quo (crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants, or government surveillance and interior enforcement) by saying some version of “The border is everywhere now.”

But more fundamentally, discussion of immigration—even among the people making policy—so often treats the United States as the only real country, and its government as the only real actor. Other countries’ circumstances are conflated or ignored entirely, as most elected officials assume changes in migration are primarily or solely the result of U.S. policies. If other countries harden their own borders, it’s only in response to some U.S. diktat, and their sovereignty is nothing the United States itself needs to respect. The Mexican government can be prevailed upon to receive Guatemalans and Venezuelans; the Australian government can be persuaded to accept Central American refugees from America. The most important number in immigration—apprehensions—has always included plenty of people who are immediately or near-immediately deported. To see it as the measure of border security is to say that the mere fact of setting foot on U.S. soil, of arriving here from elsewhere, is more important than whatever the government does to you afterwards.

When the United States acts dovishly, it is accused of creating “pull factors”—inducing migrants to come who would otherwise have stayed at home. When it acts hawkishly, it is accused by different people of the same omnipotence: Any consequences must be the expression of officials’ innermost desires, because “The cruelty is the point.”

This is a book where history matters, where the unforeseen, if hardly unforeseeable, consequences of today’s response lead to the next crisis.

The moments in which migrants themselves are “humanized”—which is to say, the moments in which people in power or large numbers of the general public pay attention to the victims of immigration policy—are the exception that proves the rule. Migrants are only “humanized” in terms of their victimhood, as if the only relevant part of being human were the capacity to feel pain at the hands of more powerful forces. Immigration doves pay the most attention to policy when people are suffering and the U.S. government can be readily fingered as the cause—a phenomenon that reached its apex in 2018, with the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, from which the public’s attention span has arguably never recovered.

It’s a form of “humanization” that deprives people of agency, because it brings them into focus at the moment when they are most wholly abject. In fact, sympathy often disappears at the first hint that migrants make choices of their own. It was impossible to get the sort of attention that family separation had gotten in 2018 for the “Remain in Mexico” policy of 2019, when asylum seekers were forced back to Mexico to live while their immigration cases moved forward, or for Title 42 in 2020-23, when many people were summarily expelled without being given the opportunity to present a case for asylum in court at all. That’s despite the fact that those policies also led to family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, as families chose out of desperation to send their children to the United States unaccompanied. The fact that they “self-separated”—even if that choice was made for the child’s survival—rendered it impossible to present them as victims, and therefore to get the critical mass of sympathy for a “humanizing” moment.

It’s an infuriating dynamic to those of us who cover immigration on a regular basis, and who deserve more credit than we get for depicting immigrants as human beings even when they’re not being subjected to unspeakable cruelty. (Full disclosure: Blitzer and I have become friends through admiration of each other’s work and shared membership in the Trump-era immigration press corps.) It’s impossible to tell a story that is both compelling and sustained when only one actor is allowed to have any agency. Imagine the Odyssey as a monologue told by Poseidon and you get a sense of the narrative limitations: It’s just one damn thing after another.

The fact that Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here doesn’t reach that overwhelming, exhausted feeling until its final, late-Trump chapters is a testament to Blitzer’s tremendous archival research, which frees him from having to present the U.S. government as a single actor at all. Even when he focuses on policy—whether it’s foreign policy toward Central America or immigration policy within the United States— he can present it as a conversation individual officials have with each other, making choices (and, often, ignoring warnings) in real time. From the earliest chapters, Blitzer has a nose for the plainspoken insider and the dissent cable: His account of the Latin American Cold War is one in which American officials candidly admit that if your name happens to be on a junta list, “[Y]our future life expectancy is about one hour,” and cable Washington that “The [Salvadoran] military has explicitly rejected dialogue and heralded a policy of extermination.” Immigration officials weigh competing values and predictable tradeoffs in making policy—or act too hastily and watch as consequences they failed to anticipate assert themselves.

Liberated from the fantasy that the United States shapes immigration policy through sheer force of will, Blitzer is free to build a persuasive argument that the Central American migration era was shaped by unintended consequences. The Cold War informed American migration policy and the response from religious activists in the “sanctuary movement” of the 1980s. The end of the Salvadoran civil war and the ensuing Clintonian immigration crackdown made the Los Angeles stoner gang MS-13 into a regional criminal power, ultimately fueling a wave of teenage migration to the United States in which culturally dislocated high-schoolers often found themselves drawn to the same gangs they’d come to the country to avoid.

This capsule history is by no means a summary of Blitzer’s book, which is a testament to the other truly remarkable thing about it: his choice of protagonists who didn’t just witness these events but are compelling narrators and actors within them. Activist doctor Juan Romagoza is a perfect narrative vehicle for the horrors visited on El Salvador by the U.S.-backed junta, and for the consequences of official disdain for the victims of that regime who fled northward. (Salvadorans were systematically denied asylum through the 1980s, in a process governed by the same State Department that had trained the junta.) But he is also fully the protagonist of his own story and of Blitzer’s. The book starts as a biography of Romagoza’s political consciousness. The idealistic young surgeon engages with the sermons and eventual martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, growing more willing to use his skill to help victims and opponents of the regime and finally becoming an enemy of the junta himself. The narrative lingers with him in El Salvador as he tries to make a life there work, then in Mexico as he tries to suppress his trauma, before he arrives in the United States. Eddie Anzora, who carries the book’s middle section, was present at the birth of MS-13 in Los Angeles and its kudzu-like spread into Salvadoran soil. The observational skills and people sense Anzora used to maintain his teenage delinquency cred while trying to stay a step ahead of the Rodney King-era LAPD give his chapters a texture that justifies Blitzer’s description of Eddie as “half anthropologist, half wannabe hood.” Both halves are legitimately indelible.

As the book hits the Trump era, Blitzer’s reportorial strengths can no longer avail him as well. He doesn’t have access to presidential libraries or declassified documents. (The 2019 equivalent of that “about one hour” quote was probably issued as a disappearing Signal message, anyway.) So he is limited to the reporting he was doing at the time. Deprived of archival depth and Blitzer’s ability to choose protagonists based on their insight in reflecting on their lives after the fact, the narrative loses a bit of clarity and, ultimately, momentum. The policy developments after the end of family separation have the rushed, exhausted air of a last-mile marathon push.

But that period saw an important innovation. The Trump Administration’s use of the “Remain in Mexico” policy in 2019, and the endurance of Title 42 well into the Biden Administration, demonstrated, for the first time, how Americans’ failure to care about any country but their own could be hacked to the government’s advantage: Simply shoving people “elsewhere” meant the consequences to human life were not just unintended but invisible. Both of those policies are done for now, but border externalization continues in subtler forms: The early 2024 slowdown in Border Patrol apprehensions appears to have been due to stepped-up interdictions by Mexican immigration authorities. Until the American public—or at least American policymakers—expand their mental maps to cover anything south of the Rio Grande, getting migrants out of sight and out of mind will be too elegant a solution to resist.

The map we need for 2024 and beyond is far bigger than even the one Blitzer draws. The era of “Northern Triangle” migration has sunset, and the era of hemispheric—and even global—migration has begun. Last year, more apprehended migrants came from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala than from those four countries combined.

In their place are countries whose histories often haven’t been so closely yoked to ours—Ecuador, Cameroon, India, China. It will not be possible to make the argument Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here bolsters, namely, that the United States has an obligation to welcome asylum seekers because it bears responsibility for what led them to flee. But asylum is not a matter of reparations—and it is not fundamentally about the United States, but about the proliferating number of other places from which people may come. Even the act of determining the merits of an individual asylum claim will require gaining knowledge of most of the rest of the world and admitting that what happens there matters, too.

The best that can be hoped for is that Blitzer’s book, in its relentless human-scale specificity, will force us to remember just how much we don’t know, and to accept that whatever the U.S. government says on this subject will never be the final say.

Is it too much to hope that news of an increase in unauthorized migration from a given country would provoke curiosity about what has been going wrong there, instead of another opportunity to rehearse what is going wrong here? Could we have news stories that acknowledge that people do make a choice to leave their home countries for the United States, without implying they have no legitimate humanitarian concerns? Could we even start to care enough, as a public, about immigration that we don’t waste weeks on the semantic debate of whether the status quo is a “crisis,” with the implication that only a crisis deserves our attention or concern? I’m not optimistic enough to end these sentences with anything but question marks. I will settle for saying that, maybe, this is the one book on immigration you need to read to stop saying things like “the one book on immigration you need to read.”

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Dara Lind is a Senior Fellow at the American Immigration Council and a longtime immigration reporter.

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