Honduran migrants on their way to the United States in Huimanguillo, Mexico, March 2021 (OSV News photo/Carlos Jasso, Reuters)

When I first started interpreting for asylum seekers who had landed in New York City in the winter of 2017, I stepped into the immigrant-rights movement with all the zeal of a convert. It felt like the group I was working with, the New Sanctuary Coalition, was inventing solutions to a problem that had only recently become understood in this city. This wasn’t a totally out-of-pocket reaction—the early days of the Trump administration were (rightfully) spangled with the phrase “unprecedented times,” and it felt like the problems of the country were made anew, made more challenging, urgent, and extreme, by the man in the White House.

However, the very name of the group that trained me and gave me my first look into the U.S. immigration system should have been a hint: it was, after all, the New Sanctuary Coalition, which indicated the existence of an older movement from which this organization had evolved. And so it was—the original sanctuary movement had been a nationwide association of churches and congregations that had banded together to provide safe havens and a platform for Central American refugees fleeing violence and government repression. They were the first to open up church buildings to house people, to figure out how to file asylum applications pro se, and to round up plaintiffs for the first class actions. 

There’s something visceral and immediate about working with asylum seekers—it’s me, an application, and the person in front of me telling me the story of why they fled their home country, which I then have to reshape into tidy little answers that fit the boxes on the form. There’s often not a lot of time for reflection or questioning, for wondering who shaped the practices that now feel so vital to keeping people from deportation, who sat in church basements before you and decided this was work a congregation ought to do. No time to ponder the story behind the story the person sitting across from me is telling. In those moments, the questions of who caused the bullet hole and who came up with the Band-Aid are simply not relevant. All that matters is the semi-inadequate first aid I’m able to provide.

The longer I spent working with people in the immigration system, the more I also realized that when I heard their stories in the news, I was hardly ever hearing about them, the people I worked with. I would hear about demographics, or economics, or law enforcement, or, very occasionally, a treacly human-
interest story, but immigrants themselves are not made real to the average viewer of the evening news. Though immigration is literally the movement of people from one place to another, you get very little of the people themselves if you look at the phenomenon as an outsider. They are either shapeless masses in motion or stories flattened into easily digestible trauma porn; migrants’ motivations are either impossible to discern or as dumbly outlined as the plot of a soap opera. And into this bleak narrative landscape steps Jonathan Blitzer with his new book, Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis

A long-time New Yorker reporter on the immigration beat, Blitzer’s journalism is usually people-centered. From a Brooklyn priest running an immigration program in New York City, to a mother trying to survive the immigration system, to a White House staffer disillusioned with their job, Blitzer’s writing often takes the form of the profile that illuminates the system, the individual who clarifies the structure. Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here is no different, following activists, bureaucrats, law-enforcement agents, and immigrants through more than forty years of immigration history. The main challenge this book takes on is showing how what Blitzer calls today’s “politics of permanent crisis,” evident in most media coverage of immigration, is in fact a response to a consistent pattern of self-defeating U.S. foreign policy, which is dangerously interventionist even as it turns a blind eye to murderous regimes across Central America. This is one of those truisms that earnest young activists might figure out after reading, say, Greg Grandin or Eduardo Galeano. The real value of Blitzer’s book lies in how vividly he shows these policies impacting individual lives. 

Romagoza’s flight from his home country and his struggles for rights in a new one were born of the same set of policies.


Structurally, the book is organized into three parts, corresponding to three different eras of Central American unrest and the American policies that reacted to them. Each introduces a new character while also continuing to weave in the stories that have already begun.

The first character is Juan Romagoza, a Salvadoran doctor involved in the student protest movements of the 1970s. Arrested while caring for campesinos caught in the crossfire between guerillas and government forces, he barely survived torture at the hands of government agents. He then fled the country in the early eighties and, after spending time in Mexico and California, ended up running a health clinic in Washington D.C. All the while, Romagoza worked as an activist fighting to secure the rights of Central Americans living in the United States. The torturers who caused Romagoza incredible suffering were part of a regime that received material aid from the Reagan administration, which in turn dismissed reports of human-rights abuses and denied the vast majority of Guatemalan asylum applications. Romagoza’s flight from his home country and his struggles for rights in a new one were born of the same set of policies. 

Blitzer’s next protagonist is Eddie Anzora, an ambitious young Salvadoran whose mother brought him to South Central Los Angeles as a toddler in the early eighties, in the same wave of immigration that included Romagoza. In Los Angeles, Anzora witnessed the beginnings of MS-13, originally a gang for Central Americans whose exclusion from the older, more established Black and Mexican American neighborhood gangs had left them vulnerable. Anzora, whom Blitzer describes as “half anthropologist, half wannabe hood,” had managed to stay on the outskirts of hardcore gang life, opening a recording studio and working as a vet tech. But a conviction for drug possession in his twenties (the result of a Clinton-era crackdown on crime) led to Anzora’s deportation to El Salvador in 2007 (following Bush’s post–9/11 increase in punitive immigration enforcement). For Anzora, returning to El Salvador meant struggling to survive in a country where deportees were increasingly targeted by gang members—the same ones he’d grown up with in Los Angeles. His story reveals how the harsh immigration and crime policies of the early 2000s didn’t just perpetuate the circular violence in Central America, but actually exacerbated instability and led to renewed waves of migration. 

Blitzer’s third and final section focuses on Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga. During her childhood in La Ceiba, Honduras, she witnessed the same kind of gang violence that Anzora had encountered in El Salvador after his deportation. Gonzáles initially left Honduras in 2007 after the death of her brother and amid increasing concerns about her husband’s ability to make a living in a dwindling tourist industry. She returned in 2010 to be reunited with her sons, whom she had left with family members for what was meant to be a short-term trip to the United States. But her return was marked by waves of increasing violence. After Gonzáles testified in court against her brother’s killers, she knew she had a target on her back. She spent years hiding in different parts of Honduras, and even crossed into Mexico only to be deported. In 2017 Gonzáles and her two sons decided to cross into the United States again. Gonzáles’s faith had undergone a renewal during her return trip to Honduras, and her preternatural calm and welcoming spirit earned her the nickname of “la pastora” from fellow migrants. That faith and that community sustained her as she waited to be reunited with her sons, whom U.S. border officials had separated from her during the so-called zero-tolerance policy era. 

Miller and other nativists found a system predisposed to dehumanization, alienation, and violence and exploited it to inflict further cruelty.

Blitzer’s knack for telling compellingly human stories is matched by his skilled political reporting and analysis of the tortuous landscape of our capricious, ever-shifting immigration policy, which requires constant adaptation on the part of attorneys and immigration experts. The early Tucson sanctuary movement’s tactic of flooding the system with asylum applications caught my eye, in part because it was the same one I had practiced early in my activism in New York. I also recognized their creeping suspicion that there were new unwritten policies at work, evident in changing patterns of acceptances and rejections I saw in my own work alongside immigration attorneys. Fighting to have those hidden policies acknowledged as unjust and overturned was, and continues to be, hard, necessary work. Finding a lineage of activism across the past four unrelenting decades feels like a reason to continue.

In his preface, Blitzer recounts a single reporting trip during which he followed Department of Homeland Security officials as they met in Guatemala to stem migration at its source, as well as migrants praying in a Tapachula shelter in Mexico, “the very people DHS was trying to discourage.” The mission of the book, Blitzer writes, is “to be a kind of go-between: to tell each side’s story to the other.” And so he does—alongside migrants and activists, we also get portraits of real government officials. There’s Doris Meissner, a career bureaucrat who served in successive presidential administrations from Nixon to Clinton, and Janet Murguía and Cecilia Muñoz, civil-rights activists who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations, respectively, who saw their values eroded by the necessity of political compromise. There are also portraits of nativists and anti-immigrant activists who found a home in the White House, including Stephen Miller, the architect of many of Trump’s most vicious policies. Where Meissner, Murguía, and Muñoz recognized migrants as human beings worthy of dignity and aid, but struggled to make the political machinery align with their convictions, Miller and other nativists instead found a system predisposed to dehumanization, alienation, and violence and exploited it to inflict further cruelty. 

From the ground, immigration has felt to me like an intractably huge problem. I’ve worked with both grassroots organizations focused on addressing people’s emotional and physical needs and huge immigration legal-assistance nonprofits engaged in strategic litigation and policy proposals. In neither setting does it feel like we’re anywhere near getting our arms around the issue, much less offering a solution big enough to work. The sense of scale boggles: there’s a person, sitting here in front of you, who often needs services across a variety of fields, from legal aid to housing assistance to language classes to physical and mental-health care. And for every person like the one sitting across from you there is at least one more person who has been returned to a country they took great pains to flee, and another still who hasn’t figured out how to get connected to these services, or has given up on them. Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here begins explaining why that is so, giving a bird’s-eye view of a system—at once intimate and consequential at the level of individual lives and big enough to span governments, administrations, and thousands of miles over nearly forty years—that has been created piecemeal, at times actively and other times passively, law by law, decision by decision, story after story. 

Stories, especially stories piling up one after another, can hold more power than we realize. We learn of Romagoza’s initial interest in and subsequent alienation from the Catholic Church, and his eventual reconciliation with it after he met Archbishop Óscar Romero. Canonized by Pope Francis in 2018, Romero was best known in El Salvador for his sermons—searing homilies on the need for forgiveness and reconciliation that often concluded with his recitation of the week’s events. In Blitzer’s description: “For half an hour, sometimes longer, he would methodically list the names of people who’d been killed or disappeared, the dates of murders and mass arrests, and the locations of recent crackdowns.” This commitment to the simple recitation of facts and dates was revolutionary during a time when government repression kept truth as shadowy as possible. While Blitzer avoids taking a direct stance on policy proposals and never quite says how to fix the mess he’s detailed, his book mirrors Romero’s weekly updates in form and intent: he lays out facts and chronologies so that we might learn to recognize the injustice we have and imagine the justice we might work together to create.  

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here
The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis
Jonathan Blitzer
Penguin Press
$32 | 544 pp.

Alejandra Oliva lives in Chicago and is the author of Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration.

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