Michael Lowinger: This Is On the Media. I'm Michael Lowinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Picking up on my conversation with Jonathan Blitzer, in his new book, Everyone Who's Gone is Here, he traces the root causes of record-breaking migration at the southern border. Now, our focus shifts to the 21st century, and specifically the weekend of Mother's Day 2014, when decades of Central American history came crashing down at that border.
Jonathan Blitzer: 2014 was a major moment because that's really when you had seemingly suddenly the arrival of large numbers of Central Americans seeking asylum at the border.
Brooke Gladstone: Families.
Jonathan Blitzer: And children, populations that were extremely vulnerable, that administratively required a lot of attention. This was the culmination of decades of US foreign policy and US immigration policy. A lot of what these Central Americans were fleeing in 2014 was gang violence. That gang violence in Central America was the result of US deportation policy in the 1990s. Americans were deporting gang members who had been hardened on the streets of American cities.
Brooke Gladstone: That sounds a little simplistic. Are we really responsible for the gang violence?
Jonathan Blitzer: In this instance, I have to say, while American complicity in the horrors of the region is often indirect, this is one instance where there is a direct throughline between US immigration policy and crime in the region. All throughout the 1980s, you had hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Central American asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants arriving in the United States, and a lot of them arrived in inner cities across the country. In Los Angeles at the time, the Salvadoran population that arrived was immediately brutalized by a vicious racial hierarchy, Black gangs, Mexican gangs, and a lot of young Salvadorans started to form their own groups, and gangs as just a form of self-defense. Over time, elements of these groups grew increasingly violent in their own right.
For example, gangs like MS-13, which now is such a widely known name because President Trump talked about it incessantly, that gang began on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. The United States in the '90s as it was cracking down on crime and as it was also trying to show itself to be tough on immigration matters, started to deport a lot of these gang members who had really come into their own on the streets of American cities. The issue was that the United States didn't warn Central American governments about the types of people it was deporting. There was just a kind of callousness and neglect.
Take a country like El Salvador. This country was just reeling from 12 years of civil war. One of the agreements that emerged in the peace talks was that the state would have to dismantle the police force because it had engaged in all kinds of abuses during the war. They were slowly building back the police. The state itself was weak. The country's economy had cratered. At that moment, you started to have the mass arrival of very violent criminals from the United States. You had instances in which Salvadoran presidents complained to Clinton at international summits that the US wasn't giving them a chance to adequately prepare for the types of people now who were arriving and who were causing chaos and mayhem in Salvadoran cities.
Brooke Gladstone: Hence, the repeated wave of refugees. Now, that is fascinating. I mentioned earlier that there was an attitude that arose during the Clinton administration that legal immigrants are fine. Illegal ones, they shouldn't be allowed in. Nowadays, conservatives say that, "Oh, immigration is fine, and all, my grandpa," yada, yada, yada, but the law is the law.
Jonathan Blitzer: There was always an element of bad faith in that argument that I think in recent years, we've now finally seen for what it is. The standard bearer of the Republican Party, the former president, Donald Trump, made his administration into a war on immigration of all forms. The Trump administration worked assiduously to cut legal immigration to the United States. They can no longer credibly claim that what they're trying to do is just be harsher and follow the rule of law for people who are attempting to cross unlawfully. In fact, what they're trying to do is make it harder for anyone to come to the United States.
Brooke Gladstone: They did two big things. The Remain in Mexico policy was one of them.
Jonathan Blitzer: The premise of it was that rather than extending people protection when they sought asylum at the US border and letting them enter the country, as was their legal right to do, the US government instead would shunt them to northern Mexico and basically say, "Okay, you have to wait here for however many months it takes for your case to make it through the backlogged American immigration courts." There were no measures taken to see to the general welfare or protection of asylum seekers while they were in northern Mexico, a notoriously dangerous region.
We're talking about 70,000 people over time, stuck in tent cities along the border in miserated conditions, often preyed on by criminal gangs and cartel elements. Trump really worked to put the lives of these migrants at the border out of sight and out of mind. Any government that succeeded Trump that attempted to reengage with this issue, guided by a sense of the law and basic human decency, was going to face this problem of bringing a situation that had been kept out of view back into the fore of American public life. That's one of the things that contributed to this sense that Biden was bringing chaos when he took over. This stuff was all building south of the border. It was just out of plain view.
Brooke Gladstone: Remain in Mexico was one of Trump's big policies. The second one was to use the pandemic to make it almost impossible to apply for refugee status at all.
Jonathan Blitzer: We really live with the legacy of that now. What the Trump administration did was it invoked this obscure public health authority to say, "Look, we're in the start of a pandemic. We have to see to the protection of federal workers and Americans, and we can't process people coming to seek asylum." We've since learned, of course, that public health officials did not support the use of this authority and that they got strong-armed by the White House at the time. But what's so significant about it was it did a few things that Biden has now had to reckon with and hasn't fully overcome.
The first was that because this policy just expelled people en masse without processing them, it led, actually to more repeat crossings because they had nothing to lose. If they got turned away the first time, they were so desperate, they may as well try a second time. They weren't going to be detained. They weren't going to lose a case that then became a mark on their record.
It's also become an issue for the Biden administration, which was opposed to the policy in theory when it took office, but was slow to end it because it was very seductive for members of the current administration to hold on to this authority that promised to allow the government to expel anyone and everyone they had to whenever they wanted. The result was that this idea somehow got normalized such that just the other day, you heard President Biden say that he's willing to shut down the border if that meant gaining control.
Brooke Gladstone: In your view, what did Biden do well, and what has he not done well?
Jonathan Blitzer: What Biden has done well, he has stood the legal immigration system back up after years of its deterioration under Trump. It has stood back up the refugee system, which was a program that the Trump administration had deliberately run into the ground. Now the United States is resettling large numbers of refugees at levels that we saw prior to the Trump years. There have been all sorts of administrative regulations that the administration has put into place to reverse some of these more technical Trump policies and also interior enforcement.
ICE continues to make arrests and to deport people but in a more targeted way. Of course, it's a double-edged sword for the Biden administration, because here is something that they could really credibly say, particularly to democratic voters and members of the progressive left, that, "Look, we have actually been increasingly humane in how we carry out interior enforcement in the country," but they don't want to sound like they're being too soft on immigration because the border looms large.
These successes that I'm describing, the Biden administration has been slow to tout. The area where the Biden administration has really struggled is at the border, is figuring out how to deal with this historic number of people showing up seeking asylum and figuring out ways of dealing regionally to try to manage the flow. That is an immense problem, particularly now, as Congress is resisting requests from the administration for more funding. Their goal here is to make the situation worse because it plays better politically for them.
Brooke Gladstone: Would you say there's some denialism on the part of some progressives about how serious the problem is at the border, which is partly why it's been such a winning issue for Republicans because at least they're acknowledging there's a problem?
Jonathan Blitzer: I think that that's right. Republicans are capitalizing on the fact that people think, "Oh, the fact that Republicans are able to say that there is a problem means that they're clear-eyed about a solution." That is not true. The proposals that Republicans have put forward in Congress are not credible solutions.
Brooke Gladstone: Who says they're not credible?
Jonathan Blitzer: Well, I'm glad you asked because often the way this issue plays out in the media is we say, "Oh, well, Republicans say X, and Democrats counter with Y." In fact, if you talk to career officials at Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, ICE, what you hear a lot of them say is that the things Republicans are proposing are not workable. They're impractical.
Brooke Gladstone: Like what?
Jonathan Blitzer: In example, you hear Republicans say that one of the problems we have is that so many families are showing up at the border seeking asylum. The solution to that is to detain all the families. This is an impossibility. There aren't the resources to detain families at that scale and it's not clear that that would really stem the flow of families who are desperate to reach the border. What it would do is it would overwhelm resources. It would consume a great deal of money. It would take a long time to set up the facilities that would be necessary to act on that premise. It would also mean that you would have to release certain single adults, for instance, in order to make room for families. It is nonsense.
If you talk to people who actually engage in operations on a granular, daily level at the border and beyond, they say as much. That doesn't mean that Democrats aren't to blame for failing to come up with more credible alternatives. They've almost sat out the policy debate over the years and it's a policy debate that is ugly. Every operational idea for how to deal with what's going on at the border has countless trade-offs. It really is a complex tangle. The way through it is to engage rather than to disengage. I feel like that's been historically the problem of Democrats. They've pulled back rather than doubled down.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. At the end of 2019, a million migrants were arrested at the southern border. You quote the head of Customs and Border Protection saying, "These are numbers no immigration system in the world is designed to handle."
Jonathan Blitzer: I'm glad you cite that moment in 2019 because you'll remember Trump is still in office and that is the year following the harshest border enforcement policy we have ever seen, which was the separation of families. The premise of that policy was, if we treat families harshly enough at the border, enough of them in the region will take stock, and they will stop coming. What did we see? The numbers reached historic heights. Until we get away from the idea that pure enforcement by the border has a demonstrable impact on mass migration patterns in the region and the world, we are going to be in this endless cycle.
Brooke Gladstone: What does that mean?
Jonathan Blitzer: Regional cooperation that we've never really seen before at a meaningful scale, it would mean trying to reimagine what asylum looks like, acknowledging the fact that you can't process everyone at the border and there need to be more concerted efforts made to deal with people in their home countries. That stuff that quite honestly is going to take years to set up. The politics are so reductive and so bruising in the meantime that we're stuck in this terrible loop where the things that we need to try to consider are just too long-term to withstand the immediacy of our present-day politics.
Brooke Gladstone: There are a lot of characters in your book, but you conclude with one, Juan Romagoza, and I wonder if you can tell me about him, why you chose him.
Jonathan Blitzer: Juan was a surgeon by training who in 1980 in El Salvador, where he's from, was tortured by the Salvador National Guard, brutalized to incapacitate him so he couldn't practice medicine again.
Brooke Gladstone: Why?
Jonathan Blitzer: He had helped rural peasants whom the government at the time thought were sympathetic to the leftist guerillas. He ended up escaping, spending a few years recuperating in Mexico, where he helped Guatemalans fleeing the Guatemalan Civil War, travel through Mexico and reach the United States, and get linked up with American sanctuary activists. Juan eventually reaches the United States himself, ends up applying for and getting asylum, a real rarity at the time for Salvadorans, and becoming a community leader and a public health advocate first in LA and San Francisco, and then eventually in Washington DC.
In the early 2000s, there was this incredibly important human rights case that was tried in a federal court in Florida where two Salvadoran generals, who by then were in their late 60s, early 70s, were finally taken to task for their involvement in war crimes. Juan was the main plaintiff and witness in that case, and that case led to the eventual deportation of these two Salvadoran war criminals in 2015 after years of their having lived in the United States, thanks to the intervention of the US State Department in the 1980s.
Juan's the beating heart of this story, a moral presence, also an embodiment of history, and illustrates something that's very central to the reporting here, which is the US and Central America are deeply entwined. You can't disentangle the United States and the wider region and the more American lawmakers have tried, whether through politics or foreign policy or immigration policy, the more tightly bound the US and this region become, and Juan really exemplifies that.
Brooke Gladstone: Jonathan, thank you very much.
Jonathan Blitzer: Thank you so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and author of the new book, Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here.
Micah Loewinger: Coming up, why maybe it's time to start covering Trump more.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media.