America’s Immigration Reckoning Has Arrived

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Written By Pinang Driod

In the summer of 2014, I joined a group of journalists in an organized visit to a Border Patrol warehouse in Nogales, Arizona. My daughter had just turned 5 the day before. As I walked out the door, I remember using my hands to smooth out the wrinkles on her school uniform as tenderly as if I were waking her up from sleep. I remember writing my daily note to her in our shared language—Eu te amo—with an extra dose of guilt; leaving her in her father’s care was always safe and convenient, but never easy.

That goodbye would have hurt so much more if I knew what I was about to witness. With concrete floors and fluorescent lights that stayed on day and night, the 120,000-square-foot warehouse was no place for children. And yet there they were, hundreds of them, lying close together under space blankets, in makeshift holding pens marked off by mesh-wire fences more than eight feet tall. In the article I wrote about the visit, I noted the contrasting reactions between children of different ages: While a teen cried, her face buried in a soiled stuffed lamb, a toddler smiled as she held a Border Patrol agent by the hand. The teen telegraphed awareness of the predicament the caged children were in. The toddler, oblivion.

Throughout the spring of 2014, while covering the Southwest as Phoenix bureau chief for The New York Times, I had closely followed the evolving story of the unprecedented number of children making the grueling trek to arrive in the United States. By the end of that fiscal year, in September, the official tally would show a 77 percent increase in apprehensions of unaccompanied minors over the previous year—about 69,000 children caught while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

To answer the question of why so many children—why so many people, period—continue to risk so much to leave their countries and come to a place not only that is foreign to them, but where they may well be unwelcome, demands a confrontation with the recent past. What I saw then—and what we’re seeing today on the southern border and in cities including New York, where more than 100,000 migrants arrived in the past year—are reverberations of a long, violent history that implicates the United States for its meddling in Central America. This is the story that Jonathan Blitzer painstakingly documents in his new book, Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here. In the interest of fending off the advance of communism during the Cold War, the United States supplied arms, trained soldiers, and dispatched its own covert troops to support merciless government repression in the region, creating a chain reaction of sorts that is still being felt today.

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here – The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis
By Jonathan Blitzer

The United States’ role and responsibility in sowing chaos abroad is a big, if seldom acknowledged, part of the story, but not all of it. The countries these migrants are coming from have been shaken by destabilizing forces impossible to contain: war, poverty, violence, political unrest, and, more than ever these days, climate change. The deeper I got into Blitzer’s book, the clearer it became to me that no one person or entity can be blamed for bringing them to America’s door. But understanding the various converging pressures couldn’t be more important.

In addition to showing how America’s own actions helped fuel migration, Blitzer also demonstrates all the ways that past responses to the influx have led to our current impasses: Democratic presidents ensnared in Republican gamesmanship, language and images deployed to stoke fear and anger within a fearful and angry slice of the electorate, attempts at immigration reform derailed by selfish political ambitions.

Blitzer introduces, for example, the idea of “compensatory toughness”—a policy or action endorsed by Democratic presidents to prove that they, too, can be tough on border enforcement. Think of Bill Clinton’s signing of the Republican-sponsored Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, which included small crimes such as shoplifting and drug possessions as reasons for mandatory immigration detention and deportation. Or Barack Obama’s authorization of dozens more miles of new border fence shortly after he endorsed immigration reform.

The book compellingly captures the lopsided nature of cross-party negotiations with a quote from a speech that Obama gave in El Paso, Texas, in 2011, which happens to be the year his administration logged nearly 400,000 deportations, a record: “All the stuff [Republicans] asked for, we’ve done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goalposts on us one more time.”

In this tale, the goalposts seem always to be moving.

Migrants choose to come to the United States because the United States has efficiently sold to the world the idea that the yellow brick road leads here, that this is where dreams come true. Through the lens of Central America, Blitzer documents the role of the United States in facilitating a lot of the insecurity that has pushed people out, a Cold War legacy.

Ronald Reagan used a scathing critique of Jimmy Carter’s diplomatic approach to dealing with the leftist insurgents in Nicaragua in order to help win him the presidency in 1980. Reagan’s administration then turned Honduras, a stable country at the time, into a staging ground for the United States’ operations in not only Nicaragua but also Guatemala and El Salvador. Reagan pushed Congress to allocate aid to these countries’ military forces, which had a hand in killing hundreds of thousands of peasants, students, human-rights activists, and many others who dared to stand up to their repressive governments. Many of the fighters who led and carried out some of the worst abuses of human rights were trained in the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, including the battalion behind the massacre in the village of El Mozote in El Salvador, which claimed some 1,000 lives, nearly half of them children’s.

Blitzer zooms in on El Salvador. His main character is a Salvadoran named Juan Romagoza, a “short and scrawny” teenager whose charisma “hung off him like a loose shirt,” as Blitzer writes. In 1964, at the age of 13, Romagoza announced that he was leaving home to attend seminary. Six months later, he decided to trade his devotion to religion for medicine. In 1970, he entered medical school and went on to apply his skills to treating campesinos, small farmers, at a free health clinic he and some classmates had helped set up.

Days after four nuns were raped and murdered in the capital, San Salvador, in 1980, Romagoza was detained in the hamlet of Chalatenango, where he had traveled to care for those injured in confrontations between government and leftist forces; a soldier mistook his medical equipment for weapons and labeled him a guerrilla leader. We see him get burned, shocked, sodomized with a metal rod, and locked in a coffin, where he thought for sure he would die. In an ironic twist, he was saved by an uncle, a lieutenant colonel in the Salvadoran military, who picked him up without saying a word and escorted him to his parents, who had been summoned to the military barracks thinking that they were going to retrieve their son’s body.

Romagoza’s captors had shot him through a forearm so that he would never again practice medicine. Romagoza didn’t let that stop him, though. As the threats against him continued, he escaped to Mexico and, in 1983, dashed from Tijuana to San Diego while Border Patrol agents nodded off in a pickup truck nearby. He eventually made his way to Washington, D.C., where he ran a community health center called La Clinica del Pueblo—the people’s clinic. Blitzer brings the story full circle when he takes us to a federal courthouse in Florida in 2002, where Romagoza testifies against the two men responsible for his torture: José Guillermo García, El Salvador’s minister of defense from 1979 to 1983, and his successor, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, also one of Romagoza’s interrogators. García and Vides Casanova had fled to the United States, opening the door for human-rights lawyers here to file a civil case against them.

At one point during the trial, Romagoza and others who testified approached the jury and exposed some of the torture scars on their bodies. Blitzer quotes what Romagoza said was going through his mind at the moment, revealing the origin and significance of his book’s title: “So many scars in El Salvador, and we have the privilege to show ours. Everyone who is gone is here.”

Another of Blitzer’s characters is Eddie Anzora, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s at the age of 3 with his mother. He’s a self-described “American-culturalized” man with a “lilting Chicano accent” that put him “on the native side of English.” Anzora teetered on the edge of criminality in a neighborhood besieged by gangs and drugs. He landed in jail a few times, mostly for petty crimes like tagging and disorderly conduct. And eventually he was deported to El Salvador, a country he’d left as a toddler. By then, Anzora had worked at an animal hospital, started a music-production company, bought a home. None of it mattered. The only thing that defined him was his status as an undocumented American.

Anzora’s mother took him out of El Salvador to escape the bloody civil war. The United States sent him right back there, where the streets were now ruled by gangs that had been transplanted from the United States. These gangs and the particularly brutal brand of violence they practiced is the reason many desperate parents sent their children to America in the first place—children like the unaccompanied minors I met at the warehouse in Nogales; children as young as my own.

A report by Human Rights Watch, released in 2020, concluded that the United States was “putting Salvadorans in harm’s way in circumstances where it knows or should know that harm is likely.” In El Salvador, gangs prey on those who are deported, and local authorities do little or nothing to protect them. From 2013 to 2019, the report says, at least 138 Salvadorans were killed after being deported from the United States. Given this reality, Anzora figures among the lucky ones. He used his English skills to find work at a call center and then to start his own business, an English school. He fell in love and became a father.

El Salvador has become a markedly safer country since its president, Nayib Bukele, declared a state of emergency in March 2022, moving to indiscriminately imprison tens of thousands of suspected gang members. Once the country with the highest homicide rate in the world, it now has the highest incarceration rate, as The Wall Street Journal reported in July.

Bukele, who once described himself on Twitter (now X) as “the world’s coolest dictator,” is widely and wildly popular these days. He is deep into a reelection campaign, after earning permission from a friendly electoral tribunal to circumvent El Salvador’s constitutional ban on reelection. He is riding on the success of his iron-fist approach to crime-fighting; early this month, government officials announced that the country’s murder rate had dropped by 70 percent, making it the second lowest in the Americas. At what cost, though?

Over the past 20 years or so, U.S. politicians have sought to tackle the immigration crisis in ways that have only exacerbated the problem. If George W. Bush used immigration as a central plank of his campaign, Donald Trump used it as a lancet, slicing open wounds and gleefully watching them bleed. As Blitzer put it, “Immigration tapped into a rich vein of American outrage, and Trump had an instinct for a galvanizing message.” The desperation to win at all cost opened doors to xenophobes like Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Trump and the force behind his agenda, to dictate the language, tone and bite of the discourse on immigration.

Among other casualties, our asylum system is now on the brink of collapse. Take this sobering statistic: 10 years ago, in fiscal 2013, immigration courts had about 344,000 pending cases. This past December, the backlog topped 3 million—or about 4,500 cases for each of the courts’ 682 judges.

I watched as Trump delivered his immigration speech to an adoring crowd in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2016, whipping them into a frenzy by pledging to build a wall along the border and force Mexico to pay for it. He promised to undo Obama’s executive orders, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has given temporary reprieve from deportation—and a lifeline—to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.

Trump also worked diligently to undo the United States’ long-standing commitment to humanitarianism in its generous resettlement of refugees. Numbers were manipulated to tell a desired story regardless of whether it was true. Truth, in fact, became an impediment to the mission. Cited consistently in Trump-administration reports, Blitzer writes, were the demonstrably false statistics assembled by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-immigrant “hate group.”

This is the animosity that rules Trump’s immigration rhetoric and reelection plan. If he is elected in November, the United States will have a president who has echoed Hitler in his claim that undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” and vowed to sharply reduce legal and illegal immigration through mass deportations and other divisive tactics.

Revolutions and counterrevolutions failed to deliver on their promises of safety, equity, and stability, and not just in Central America. The United States needs to take responsibility for its role in the turmoil there and acknowledge responsibility for helping create today’s immigration crisis. An unprecedented number of migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and other Latin American countries are still showing up at our doorstep. Our asylum system, created to assess need and merit on a case-by-case basis, finds itself overwhelmed. Congress is more divided than ever, the chasm wider still as Trump solidifies his position as the leading Republican contender in 2024.

Earlier this month, a woman and two children drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande, before the eyes of Border Patrol agents (who had received orders from the Texas National Guard not to do anything). Yet the conversation in Washington is about more punitive measures, more enforcement. Blitzer shows all the ways our immigration system is in shambles. A series of misguided actions and their consequences brought us to this point. This book begins the reckoning we desperately need.

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Fernanda Santos is a Brazilian-American journalist and the author of The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.


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