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A writer tugs at the roots of America’s stubborn border woes

In the spring of 2014 and on through the sizzling summer that year, tens of thousands of children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas without their parents.

News organizations blasted images of kids crammed into over-air-conditioned, cage-like U.S. Border Patrol holding pens partitioned by chain-link fencing. The youngsters cocooned themselves in shiny silver mylar blankets that resembled hazmat gear or supersize rolls of aluminum foil.

In isolation, it could have been viewed as yet another familiar crisis in an unending loop of crises along that contentious border. But, as Jonathan Blitzer writes in his sweeping and insightful book, “Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis,” those months marked a shift in America’s immigration conundrum. No longer were the arrests on the border overwhelmingly Mexican migrants. Instead, these kids came primarily from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The United States was the site of the crisis — and it also bore much of the responsibility for it, Blitzer convincingly argues.

“Decades of Central American history were crashing down at the U.S. border,” writes Blitzer, a New Yorker magazine writer who for years has been one of the most perceptive chroniclers of a complex and often misunderstood bane of U.S. policymakers.

Writing with clarity and grace, while avoiding the mawkish tone sometimes associated with tales of the border, Blitzer makes a compelling case that the United States and Central America are knit as one. The poorer nations to the south are dominated and often undermined by the richer nation to the north, which in turn is being shaped in many ways by the migrants who quit those troubled lands and cross into the United States.

“Immigrants have a way of transforming two places at once: their new homes and their old ones,” Blitzer writes.

The themes explored in the book feel all the more relevant as we enter a presidential campaign in which immigration is once again a centrally toxic issue. Already former president Donald Trump, who is closing in on the Republican nomination, has asserted that migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” His presumptive Democratic opponent, President Biden, has struggled to contain yet another surge of illegal crossings or to persuade GOP lawmakers to pass new immigration laws he supports. And Republicans are trying to impeach Biden’s homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas.

Far from reading like a dry policy tome, Blitzer’s book makes its case by telling in vivid detail the stories of a cast of representative figures spread over five decades. There are brutal Central American regimes propped up by U.S. military aid, frustrated and conflicted U.S. policymakers, relentless U.S. immigration advocates, and an array of migrants, including a Salvadoran graffiti artist trying to skirt the influence of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gangs in Los Angeles. Another is a Honduran woman who was one of the first parents separated from her children under policies instituted by the Trump administration. In a heartbreaking passage, Blitzer writes that U.S. immigration agents “were yanking her out of the cell and away from her kids, but her eyes remained fixed on the taut, trembling fingers of her boys, who clutched her clothes until their grips broke.”

Numerous U.S. institutions, bureaucrats and presidents come under Blitzer’s disapproving gaze for supporting savage governments responsible for vast numbers of people killed — many of them poor and Indigenous — during crackdowns on opposition groups and civil wars in the region, all in a misguided quest to vanquish communism or make a buck at the expense of human rights. Blitzer writes, for example, of the CIA, which in a mostly forgotten episode overthrew the Guatemalan government in the 1950s at the behest of a U.S. corporation that wanted bigger tax breaks abroad.

Blitzer also recounts how, in the early 1980s, one of the more inaptly titled American officials ever — the State Department’s assistant secretary for human rights, Elliott Abrams — tried to suppress information about the massacre of 978 people, including 477 children, in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote. Abrams shamefully attacked the credibility of the courageous New York Times and Washington Post reporters who exposed the atrocity. Despite the Post and Times reports, the Reagan administration rewarded the Salvadoran government with a certification attesting to its human rights efforts, Blitzer writes. Elsewhere, he describes a bizarre scene in the 1980s in which Immigration and Naturalization Service agents tried to intimidate U.S.-based activists by slashing their tires.

But some officials come out well in Blitzer’s telling, including Joe Moakley, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who was “a case study in political theatricality. A talker, fighter, schemer, and strategic self-mythologizer.”

Moakley, who died in 2001, grasped all the nuances of U.S.-manufactured border crises, once saying, “It’s our bombs, our guns, and our mines that made these people refugees.” But he was stymied in his investigation of the 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests whom the U.S.-backed Salvadoran regime suspected of having ties to rebel groups during that country’s civil war. The State Department and CIA were “giving [the Salvadorans] cover,” Moakley concluded.

One through-line in the book is the story of a remarkable Salvadoran physician, Juan Romagoza, who was driven from his country in the 1980s by military torturers, in great part because he provided medical assistance to demonstrators. Romagoza, who was interviewed extensively by Blitzer, eventually made his way to Washington, where he volunteered at La Clínica del Pueblo, a community health center.

Early on, Romagoza made his living by working as a janitor in downtown office buildings. Blitzer shows him dragging his cleaning cart up the stairs rather than using the elevator because he’s unnerved by small, confined spaces — in El Salvador, he’d once been forced to lie in a closed coffin for two days by military torturers serving under the U.S.-backed government. They’d arrested him and falsely accused him of being a guerrilla commander while he was providing medical treatment in a village caught in the crossfire of rebels and government forces.

Romagoza plays an important role in the quest for accountability for those who commit war crimes. In the early 2000s, he was one of three plaintiffs who sued two former Salvadoran generals — Eugenio Vides Casanova and José Guillermo Garcia — under a U.S. torture law based on the “command responsibility” doctrine, which holds military leaders accountable for the actions of their troops. Testifying in a federal courtroom, Romagoza said his tormentors used a torture technique nicknamed “Dedos Chinos” — Chinese Fingers — that involves tying wire around a victim’s fingers to cut off circulation. Romagoza — who by then was the director of La Clínica del Pueblo — described the permanent damage that left him unable to ever perform surgery.

More than two decades after covering the trial for The Post, I remember the icicle-cold looks on the generals’ faces as much as the sound of weeping in the audience. In July 2002, Romagoza and his co-plaintiffs won a $54 million judgment — the first of its kind under the torture law.

“Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here” is sure to take its place as one of the definitive accounts of the U.S. and Central American immigration puzzle, a long and ongoing saga with no real solution in sight. As he traces the calculations and ministrations of the last three U.S. presidents in particular, each facing their own crisis, the words of Rahm Emanuel, who served as President Bill Clinton’s White House political adviser and President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, seem ever more undeniable: Immigration is “the third rail of American politics.”

And yet, after reading Blitzer’s book, one can’t help but think that the impossible might be possible — that maybe, just maybe, this could be fixed. He’s not trying to lay out a set of policy solutions. He’s making a more nuanced plea, a rejection of the “selective amnesia” of politics in favor of a deeper understanding of how we — as a nation and as a region — got here.

It is a book with a “mission,” he writes, a nudge for U.S. decision-makers and a platform for voices on the other side of the border, a “kind of go-between: to tell each side’s story to the other; to find a way to bring the Homeland Security officials into the housing-complex basement; and to allow the migrants in the basement to participate, for once, in the privileged backroom conversations that decide their fate.”

Hopefully, those with the power to change things will listen.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post features writer and formerly served as The Post’s bureau chief in Miami and Mexico.

The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis

By Jonathan Blitzer

Penguin Press. 523 pp. $32

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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