The US Created the Border Crisis

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here, Jonathan Blitzer’s book on the brutal history of US border policy, vividly describes the suffering that the US immigration system inflicts on individuals — and the reactionary politics that undergird it.

Central American migrants hoping to reach the United States walk along the US-Mexico border fence in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on December 29, 2018. (Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images)

The United States’ southern border has long been an obsession of reactionaries, stretching as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century, when Mexico provided asylum to runaway slaves. The 1,954 mile stretch of land continues to be a flash point for a Republican right not content with having normalized Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, which have largely remained intact under President Joe Biden. Absent any meaningful program of its own, the Right has embraced immigration and border security in an effort to radicalize a base that has very little else to cheer for. The most extreme Republicans openly talk about bombing Mexico to crush drug cartels; in 2022, anti-immigrant politics took an especially nasty turn when Texan governor Greg Abbott began bussing immigrants from his home state to New York in a cynical ploy to expose so-called liberal hypocrisies.

Very little of this is new, unfortunately. The United States’ relations, not just with Mexico, but Latin America more broadly, have long been characterized by the worst kinds of chauvinism. Justified by the Monroe Doctrine — the United States’ claim to unchallenged dominance over the Western Hemisphere — the United States has criminalized asylum seekers, militarized the southern border, and intervened directly in Latin America.

Contrary to liberal attempts to lay blame for the Right’s nativism on Trump alone, the roots of the United States’ current border politics lie much deeper. Explaining the origins of the Right’s anti-immigrant politics is the task that Jonathan Blitzer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, sets himself in Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis. The book is a harrowing indictment of the United States’ criminal role in Latin America, a region in which it has sown crisis for over a century with scant regard for the lives of millions.

“The Third Rail of American Politics”

The Biden administration, seeking to avoid appearing soft on enforcement, has adopted controversial Trump-era policies: expanding the border wall, increasing militarization, and imposing harsher restrictions on asylum seekers. This political triangulation has its roots in the 1980s following the failure of Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial bid in Arkansas. Analysts close to Clinton and the media laid blame for this defeat on the candidate’s softness on immigration, evinced in the presence of Cuban asylum seekers at Fort Chaffee, a National Guard installation located in the state.

Since then, Democratic leaders have attempted to strike a balance between tough enforcement policies and guest worker programs favored by big businesses. This has allowed Big Tech and agrobusiness to dominate debates around immigration, a framing that leaves out the humanitarian costs of the United States’ border politics. In 2022, a record nine hundred hundred migrants were found dead at the US-Mexico border, a number likely undercounted as hundreds more remain lost and unaccounted for.

The last comprehensive immigration reform in the United States was passed in 1990. In response to the efforts by the Central American Peace and Solidarity Movement and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, President George H. W. Bush’s administration was forced to address the asylum question, resulting in the creation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS did not, however, provide a path to permanent residency and required renewal every eighteen months. This amendment to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was intended to set guidelines for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) but instead gave the government legal grounds to issue denials en masse.

Since then, asylum seekers have borne the brunt of the chauvinism of the far right. In 2018, the Trump administration instituted the “remain in Mexico” or Migration Protection Protocol (MPP) after putting pressure on Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The MPP required migrants from the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — to stay in Mexico during their legal proceedings, which could last months or, in some cases, years.

IRCA, which provided an “amnesty” for undocumented workers who arrived in the United States before 1984, also penalized employers for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants and initiated the militarization of the border. This three-pronged approach — restricted legalization, criminalization, and militarization — has shaped the outlook of US immigration policy ever since, benefiting employers who prefer to keep a portion of the working class in immigration limbo.

Spanish for Vietnam

The Refugee Act of 1980, an amendment to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that eliminated the racist national origin system, aimed to establish a universal standard for asylum by defining a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” However, it failed to address how the United States would respond to asylum seekers arriving outside of official channels, a question that would be tested by the thousands fleeing Central American wars and right-wing death squads.

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here focuses on this tragedy via the story of several characters who each suffer at the hands of different aspects of the United States’ brutal border policies. One of these is Juan Romagoza, a rural surgeon from Usulután, El Salvador, accused by the military junta of aiding the coalition of leftist guerrillas, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Faced with these accusations, Juan has no other option but to flee, a decision precipitated by his kidnapping and torture at the hands of militiamen who left him for dead inside of a closed coffin.

So severe was the torture that Juan experienced that he would lose his ability to perform surgery. The sermons of the humanist and liberation theologian Archbishop Oscar Romero became a call to action. Romero became a spokesperson for the tumultuous struggle for agrarian reform and the fight against inequality that swept across most of Latin America throughout the twentieth century.

In 1979, El Salvador was essentially controlled by seventy-five people from twenty-five families who possessed 90 percent of the country’s wealth. The extremely poor and landless peasants, mostly indigenous in origin, laboring in the coffee, sugar, and cotton plantations, constituted the majority. After the implementation of a moderate US sponsored agrarian reform, the oligarchy recognized that its interests could be advanced under the cover of Cold War ideology. By accusing peasants of being communists they could turn the United States against the project of land reform, essentially pitting small and landless peasants against wealthy large landowners. The latter had the backing of the National Guard under General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the National Police, and the Treasury Police. The worst of these elements combined to form fascistic death squads who led massacres across the country in a scorched-earth policy.

In a letter to President Jimmy Carter, archbishop Romero pled: “It would be unjust and deplorable if the intrusion of foreign powers were to frustrate the Salvadoran people, were to repress them and block their autonomous decisions about the economic and political path that our country ought to follow.” A month later Romero was shot dead during mass. Undeterred, Congress would go on to approve Carter’s request for $5.7 million in unconditional “nonlethal” military aid to the Salvadorean military.

Carter had operated under a trilateral strategy of making concessions to Latin American nations while preserving American interests with a human rights veil, a strategy meant to reinstall credibility to US foreign policy post-Vietnam. The tools at Carter’s disposal were the international agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But Ronald Reagan, who conjured up the specter of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas (who had discarded US puppet Anastasio Somoza in 1979), was keen on avoiding another nation falling into the sphere of influence of Cuba and the Soviet Union. To prevent a drift away from the United States’ orbit, he pumped military aid to El Salvador’s caudillismo military.

These sums, adding up to around $25 million, were, unlike Carter’s aid, given with little concern about worries about funding death squads. The result was carnage and mass displacement. Blitzer documents how one of the recipients of this aid was the elite military unit Atlacatl Battalion, which was US trained. One military official, unfazed by the vast civilian causalities, explained that “subversives,” a euphemism for communists and other opponents of the United States’ interests, “like to say they are the fish and the people are the ocean . . . what we have done in the north is dry up the ocean so we can catch the fish easily.”

One highly publicized massacre was in the village of El Mozote. There, villagers had remained neutral during the fighting and thought, reasonably, that they would therefore be exempted from the Salvadorean military’s onslaught. Rather than fleeing, many stayed in their homes. On the orders of Domingo Monterrosa, all the men of the village were executed in the village’s lone church. Women were raped and burned alive. “Monterrosa had a word for such an operation — it was . . . a limpieza, or cleansing.” In total 978 people were murdered, including 477 children under the age of twelve.

The dirty war in El Salvador would claim the lives of seventy-five thousand students, workers, peasants, indigenous Maya, and members of the Catholic church. It also resulted in a mass exodus of people like Juan, who were labeled “communists” or sympathizers for simply being poor. Over a million Salvadoreans were displaced by 1984. By the end of the war in 1992, three million Salvadoreans were living in Los Angeles, a tenfold growth. Blitzer quotes Reagan’s public warning that El Salvador was “on the front line of the battle that is really aimed at the very heart of the Western Hemisphere, and eventually us.” This mass exodus and humanitarian disaster would compound the worst aspects of the United States’ relationship to the Northern Triangle.

La Violencia

In Guatemala, a member of Dwight Eisenhower’s National Security Council would say in 1953: “We should regard Guatemala as a prototype area for testing means and methods of combating Communism.” That year, as Jenny Pearce writes in her classic study of this topic, Under the Eagle: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean, “expropriation began . . . 100,000 peasants received land and 1,002 plantations were affected, about 16 percent of the country’s total idle cultivable lands in private hands. The landowners reacted violently against this relatively moderate redistribution.” One of the largest landholders, owning 555,000 acres to be exact, was the United Fruit Company, and it was keen on removing the instigator of these reforms, Guatemala’s second democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz.

The president’s goal, like that of many Latin American reformers of the 1950s, was to transform Guatemala’s semifeudal form of production into an efficient capitalist one, and to develop an internal market so that local industry could grow. The US ambassador to Guatemala would famously declare, “Arbenz thought like a communist and talked like a communist and if not actually one would do until one came along.” By 1954 Eisenhower’s CIA successfully overthrew Arbenz, and its handpicked successor would quickly pass a “Law against Communism” that blacklisted seventy thousand trade union leaders, teachers, students, and even members of the moderate political parties.

Whereas in El Salvador the confrontation between the Left and the Right was sharply pronounced, in Guatemala the first acts of resistance in the 1960s were from nationalist officers defending Guatemalan sovereignty. The military’s response to these rebellious officers was brutal. Seeing threats everywhere, the government cracked down heavily on students, professors, and union leaders deemed too sympathetic. “By the end of the decade,” Blitzer writes, “the revolutionary movement was in shambles, with whole segments of the urban opposition decimated. The military and its death squads had murdered almost the entire [leadership] of the labor movement.”

In El Salvador the indigenous population had been decimated due to “La Matanza” (“the Massacre”) of the 1930s. The resistance, led by the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist Farabundo Martí along with the indigenous rebels, would eventually put an end to the ethnocide by the El Salvadorean state. With over twenty distinct ethnic groups spread across the western highlands and into the north, the indigenous Maya compromised around 60 percent of the population. But they faced extreme poverty, rates of which were, for some populations, around 90 percent. Despite these challenges, the Maya formed the backbone of the resistance against the government.

The peak of “La Violencia” was from 1981 to 1983, when the government of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García adopted El Salvador’s El Mozote strategy of “cleansing” the social base of the guerrillas, i.e. indigenous Mayans. His sinister strategy of “fusiles y frijoles” (“guns and beans”) set out plans for the permission of 30 percent “total killing” in conflict zones and 70 percent forced relocation to zones controlled by the army. Anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang and later her daughter, Semilla party founder Lucrecia María Hernández Mack, would focus on the internally displaced, a term Myrna Mack helped coin and paid with her life for.

By 1984 around 1.5 million people were internally displaced. Thousands would flee to the United States. The Commission for Historical Clarification would later publish definitive facts about scale of La Violencia: two hundred thousand civilians had been killed; there were 669 massacres; 83 percent of the victims were Maya; 93 percent of the crimes involved the US-funded and -trained military. But no individual or military unit could be held responsible, the commission concluded.

Blitzer filters these horrific events through the lens of Juan, who spent these years looking after indigenous Mayan refugees in his makeshift clinic in Cuernavaca and later in an ad hoc capacity in Dolores Park, San Francisco, where he would work as a therapist. “Part of the therapy is shedding our fear,” he said of his practice of treating the mental distress of Central American refugees.

By the 1990s, the states of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were heavily militarized. The armed forces acted with impunity, civil organizations had been hollowed out or were nonexistent, and gross inequality and racism were rampant. It was in this period that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) determined that 75 percent of all cocaine that reached the United States came via Guatemala. The DEA didn’t have to search hard, as Óscar Martínez brilliantly captures in A History of Violence: Lying and Dying in Central America. As the United States was attempting to combat Colombian narcotraffickers, the CIA decided that the cocaine and heroin coming through Central America could be trafficked by various local military forces instead. The Northern Triangle countries were used by the CIA to generate illicit earnings that financed the Contras — right-wing militias of Nicaragua — and Iran during its war against Iraq, an episode that came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair.

The Making of MS-13

Enter President Bill Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which was used to brandish his tough-on-crime credentials. The law made mass deportation the core of American immigration policy; it broadened the scope of crimes that could lead to deportation for immigrants, including those with green cards and permanent residency.

“Aggravated felonies” ranged from “writing a fake check, evading taxes and steeling a purse out of a parked car” — all of these crimes could lead to deportation. The most sinister part of the law was that the government could punish immigrants retroactively. Clinton’s senior adviser Rahm Emmanuel wrote in a memo that his boss could “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” (This achievement is one that would be surpassed by Barack Obama, who deported over three million immigrants during his presidency). In a few short years, a “war on drugs” ideology had taken the place of anti-communist hysteria.

Eddie Anzora, another figure whose life Blitzer uses to provide a window into the politics of the region, was two years old when his family fled the violence in El Salvador in the mid-1980s and arrived in South Central Los Angeles, where Reagan’s war on drugs and the crack epidemic were decimating the quality of life. Gang-related violence dominated his family’s life: “by the early 1990s, gang related killings accounted for more than a third of all homicides in Los Angeles County, and at least 55 percent of the victims were Latino.”

It was under these conditions that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang was formed. Initially conceived as a self-defense organization for Salvadoreans trapped in the vicious cycle of being considered unaffiliated or an outsider, MS-13 would become a hardened street gang as its members filled cells in Los Angeles’s county jails. Mass deportations into the fragile state of El Salvador would transform the group into an international criminal syndicate. Between 1993 and 1996, four thousand teenagers and young men with criminal records were deported to El Salvador. “The country was in no state to receive them. Military weaponry was easily accessible. The economy had cratered, and many former soldiers and guerillas, with experience in kidnapping and extortion, were turning to street crime,” Blitzer tells us. MS-13 filled the void left behind after the El Salvadorean peace treaty, the Chapultepec Peace Accords, had been signed and the death squads were disarmed. However, the military junta’s mafia-like enterprise had new owners.

Eddie’s story represents the twin failures of Clinton’s criminalization of immigrants and criminalization of drug users with his 1994 crime bill. Eddie would eventually be deported in 2007, at the age of twenty-nine, for minor drug offenses. He arrived in an El Salvador where MS-13 was engaged in a no-holds-barred war with a government that was implementing its own Clinton-inspired tough-on-crime policy, La Mano Dura (Firm Hand). The consequences were catastrophic.

“USS Honduras”

Unlike the other members of the Northern Triangle, Hondurans had not experienced civil war or a state that suppressed its citizens through the use of mass violence. This was mostly due to lower levels of inequality and the passing in 1962 of laws that reformed agriculture by redistributing some 120,000 hectares of land to the peasantry. But with civil wars raging to its west, south, and east, Honduras was soon pulled into the fray by the United States. In the definitive account of El Salvador’s war, and a primary source for Blitzer’s book, Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War by Raymond Bonner, the author describes how the Reagan administration “transformed Honduras from a banana republic where the United Fruit Company picked the country presidents . . . into a virtual US military base.” In 1982 alone the United States pumped in $31.3 million of military aid. The Honduran military would soon be actively involved in fighting the FMLN in El Salvador, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in Guatemala, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Bonner with glaring foresight writes: “the seeds of a revolution were being planted. They well maybe fertilized by anti-Yankeeism . . . in contrast with El Salvador where American military personnel have maintained a low profile in Honduras they swagger in Tegucigalpa bars.”

On June 28, 2009, President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a “prophylactic coup” by the military, after having attempted to pass a referendum on the constitution. Zelaya was labeled an “authoritarian” and “antidemocratic” (“communist” had gone out of fashion as a slur). In the post-9/11 world, such accusations provided the United States with a green light for regime change. Zelaya had opposed the privatization of the telecommunications system; implemented free education to all children and subsidies to small farmers; and increased the minimum wage by 80 percent.

“The 2009 coup had turned the country into a tinderbox,” Blitzer writes. Supporters of Zelaya clashed with the police, and after the fraudulent election of conservative Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the National Party, “a new conservative order was installing itself in power. The party deposed four Supreme Court judges and illegally appointed a new attorney general.” The coup’s repercussions unleashed a wave of violence and lawlessness, affecting thousands of people, including another character in Blitzer’s story, Keldy Mabel Gonzales Brebe de Zuñiga and her family.

Keldy, a native of La Ceiba, Honduras, sought political asylum in the United States in 2017 alongside her two sons. La Ceiba overlooks the Caribbean island of Roatán, where US billionaires are at present attempting to establish a libertarian private city called Próspera. After the murder of four of her siblings and repeated threats against her own life, Keldy fled to the United States in search of refuge. However, she became the first victim of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which involved prosecuting adults entering the country and separating families at the border, as deterrence.

While in detention and separated from her sons, Keldy would organize other mothers: “I finally realized that no one from the government was going to help us find our kids . . . we have to do it on our own.” After being denied asylum, Keldy became “a one-woman ministry . . . her main chapel was Facebook Live.” She would fight for her cause in Tapachula, Mexico, where she was granted a humanitarian visa by the Mexican government. From there, she would assist asylum seekers attempting to make the same journey her family made.

Blitzer’s book makes clear that immigration policy has always been held hostage by the dominant political paradigms of the era, whether it be anti-communism during the Cold War, the war on drugs, or the anti-terror politics of the post-9/11 world. The question that Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here forces on the reader is what the United States’ immigration system would look like if the principles that guided it were human rights and international cooperation, rather than the brutal assertion of the Monroe Doctrine.