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Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here
by Jonathan Blitzer
Penguin Press, US/ Picador, UK, 2024


Subtitled The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis, this extraordinary history traces the sources of our current-day U.S. border crisis. Written by Jonathan Blitzer, award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker and immigration expert, the book is brimming with facts and figures of immigration history while humanizing it all with personal stories of the immigrants. The result is a page-turner.

What is known – or should be known – going into the book, is that after WWII the United Fruit Company, an American corporation, was Guatemala’s largest employer and landowner. They comprised an invisible government that dictated policy. In 1952, however, when the Guatemalan president tried to get United Fruit to pay taxes on its vast holdings, United Fruit unleashed a relentless lobbying campaign “to persuade journalists, lawmakers, and the U.S. government that he was a Communist sympathizer who needed to be overthrown.” Thus, in 1954 the CIA and United Fruit staged an invasion; the president fled and their puppet took the reigns. If we want to understand the border crisis today, we begin here.

Well into the 1980s the administrations in DC viewed Central America through the “totalizing prism of the Cold War”. Leftist movements in Central America smacked of communism. No matter that these movements developed from corrupt, right-wing governments, propped up by the US, that sought to eradicate the indigenous populations and send death squads to torture and slaughter any who did not support their oppressive regimes. The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March1980, in a hospital chapel in El Salvador, ushered in a time of mass killings. At his funeral, attended by ten of thousands of Salvadorians, the military sowed chaos with an explosion. Forty people died, hundreds were injured. Between January and March of that year, government forces had killed at least 900 civilians. Not long after, three American nuns and a female lay missionary were kidnapped, raped and murdered. The US ambassador to El Salvador wrote to Washington: “The military have explicitly rejected dialogue and heralded a policy of extermination.” No matter. Washington wrote off the women as “activists”.

The political left included the Christian Democrats (with its own dodgy history), whose leader was assassinated, and a variety of smaller parties ranging from armed guerrilla groups to nonviolent Marxists, socialists, and unionists. Reagan came in hard and heavy, though it is reported that immigration policy bored him and he bemoaned the fact it was always on the table. And so this war between military terrorist regimes and leftists repeated itself in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Only in Nicaragua, of course, the leftists came into power, so the US backed the rebel Contras, which led to the Iran-Contra scandal. And prompted Reagan to send troops into Honduras in pursuit of Sandinistas thought to have crossed its border.

As the death squads reigned in Central America, thousands upon of thousands of people fled their countries. From fear for their lives, from hunger, they left in droves. Previously, those crossing the border had been primarily Mexican, and immigration was fairly lax, but in the 80s, as waves of Central Americans sought refuge in the US, a border crisis arose. And that crisis grew with the rise of gangs, both in Central America, where they filled a vacuum, and the US, mainly South Central L.A. where the infamous Mara Salvatrucha was born. One of the personal stories we read is of a young boy, Eddie Anzora, who gets caught up in the gang culture.

Blitzer takes us through the bumpy Carter years, which ended with the Marielitos flooding Miami; the hard-line Reagan years; the slightly better, more humane George H. Bush years, the Clinton years, where his welfare reform hurt legal immigrants; the George W. Bush years, which ushered in ICE and Homeland Security; the Obama era of hope which ended up seeing more deportations than any other president; the cruel child-separation era of Trump; on to the Biden administration trying to undo some of the horrors, but currently blocked by a Congress who only toes to Trump’s wishes.

A word about Obama’s policy, which certainly had its ups and downs: I remember Trump in his debate with Biden was fond of interrupting Biden’s attack on his child-separation policy by speaking over him and shouting, “Obama built the cages!” Yes, he did. It was an emergency measure when between October 2013 and September 2014 nearly 69,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the border. But Obama never separated a child from their parents (unless the “parents” were suspected of trafficking or some other violation which occurred very rarely). The children who stayed there were those traveling alone and no child remained longer than 72 hours. They were then transferred to the Dept. of Heath and Human Resources who put them in shelters until they found placement for them in the US. Quite a different thing from ripping children from their parents’ arms, such as happened when Honduran Marco Antonio Muñoz had his three-year-old son “kidnapped” from him. He was so inconsolable, he could not be restrained and was sent to solitary confinement where the pain was so great he managed to commit suicide with a piece of his clothing.

Another story of this era is of a Honduran woman named Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga. Keldy was one of the first to be separated from her children under Trump’s zero-sum policy. She and her young teenaged boys fled Honduras after losing close family members to violence and receiving threats to their lives. Upon seeking asylum in the US, her boys were taken from her and she was jailed in an immigration detention facility where she was held for two years before being deported back to Honduras. Her story is gut-wrenching, especially as there was no record of where the children were taken, but her strong spirit and determination to find them kept her going. She became a beacon of hope and inspiration for many others.

And then there is the story of Salvadorian Juan Romagoza, which runs throughout the book. Juan had been a doctor, a surgeon, but in 1980, while providing medical care to demonstrators, upon whom the military opened fire, he was captured and tortured horribly. He was left with a bad leg and mutilated hand which meant he could never perform surgery again. Then came attempts to cross the border into the US, then the deportations, then reentry and onward.  His story alone is worth the reading. 

Blitzer grabs you with his intro and holds you right through reading the Acknowledgments.  Despite the completely wrong-headed policies from Washington, Blitzer takes care to point out the many people who tried to make things better, from the early US activists who secretly drove people across the border and found them shelter to the few in Congress who worked against all odds to do what they could. As for the immigrants themselves, he presents their battles – and battle scars – as their indomitable spirit shines through. I have often felt the border crisis is a hopeless situation. Although Blitzer does not present a remedy, I ended the book with the feeling that it is in our power to do more. In other words, I was left with hope that change was possible, simply by reading these extraordinary personal accounts, from both the immigrants themselves and those who fought for more humane policy. And that was more hope than I had before I began.   J.A.

© tbr 2024


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