Trouble at the Southern Border: How US Immigration Policy and Foreign Policy Are Inextricably Linked
Jonathan Blitzer on the Origins and Repercussions of the Current Humanitarian Crisis at the Border
On a bright, humid evening in early August 2019, ten Honduran migrants met to pray in the basement of a Mexican housing complex called Solidarity 2000. They were far from home and farther from their destination. Most had previously been deported from the United States, but none of them could stay in Honduras, so they were making the journey again. Their reasons varied. One was being hunted by criminals. Another had been going hungry. When I met them, they were biding their time in Tapachula, a city along the Guatemalan border, squatting in a semi‑abandoned building.
Many members of the prayer group had been to Tapachula before. They knew people in the city—friends they had made in American immigration jails, or in the country they had left behind. Honduras was no longer home. Home had become the route they had to tread, and retread, through Guatemala, Mexico, and the US detention system.
The migrants in Tapachula may have been Honduran, but more important, they were deportees and asylum seekers with very low odds of being admitted to the United States. Their immigration status had become a defining, immutable fact of who they now were. In news stories about “surges” or “floods” of migrants massing toward the US, these were the people whose faces were blurred and anonymous.
Eventually, they would become numbers on government spreadsheets and talking points at election time. They were “removables,” in the cold bureaucratic language of homeland security. Those who managed to traverse Mexico and cross the US border would earn yet another new status for their trouble. By law, they would be repeat offenders, and thus felons.Rather than cleaving apart the worlds of the US, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the Americans were irrevocably binding them together.
The room in Solidarity 2000 was small and dimly lit, with pocked floors and bare walls. A pink fan wheezed in a corner. I had come at the invitation of the pastor leading the prayer session, a woman I’d met in a Texas detention center a year earlier. The group went around in a circle to introduce themselves. Where they came from, no one was untouched by immigration, even those who stayed behind.
Some could afford to remain at home only because family members had already emigrated, sending money back to pay for necessities. But these were the lucky ones. The families I sat with in Mexico saw a single, stark possibility. The people they knew who were still in Honduras were either infirm, trapped, or resigned; anyone with any sense was leaving. “Even Juan Orlando is going to leave when his term is up,” one young man said, referring to the Honduran president. “Just watch. He’ll ask for asylum in the US, too.”
Everyone that evening had an American story—a trauma, a memory, or, in some cases, a memento. One man, a burly extrovert in a red T‑shirt and a flat‑brimmed hat tilted to the side, took out a photograph from Eloy, the detention center in Arizona where he had been held the year before. For a few dollars at the commissary, you could get a photo of yourself and your friends posing in the yarda. Seeing it, the pastor’s nephew pulled out his own version of the same photo from his wallet. They compared poses and swapped stories about the jail.
For more than a century, the US has devised one policy after another to keep people out of the country. For more than a century, it has failed. The past decade has proven the futility of this ambition and laid bare its incalculable human cost. More people are on the move than ever before, uprooted by war, famine, persecution, natural disasters, pandemic, climate change, corrupt regimes, and economic collapse.
A new era of mass migration is well underway. Politicians have won elections by stoking fears of open borders and irreversible demographic change. Immigration, a White House official recently told me, has become a “democracy issue”: if liberal‑democratic governments across the world fail to address the situation, it will continue to fuel the rise of populist authoritarianism.
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, the story of the southern border was about the United States and Mexico. At the time, migrants entering the US tended to be single Mexican men looking for work. But around 2014, a different population started to arrive on a scale Americans had never before seen. These were children and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—the so‑called Northern Triangle of Central America—traveling north to seek asylum.
In just about every respect, the US was unprepared for this shift. Two inescapable realities collided. First, living conditions in Central America had gotten so bad that many people couldn’t remain even if they wanted to; the region was in the free fall of an exodus. Second, the US immigration system was capable only of flailing triage.
On July 31, 2019, a few days before the Hondurans gathered to pray, another group assembled, this one at the US embassy in Guatemala City, where the acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security was hosting a select group of Guatemalan politicians, business leaders, and journalists.
He was pitching the American government’s latest gambit: a deal that would force any migrant traveling to the US through Guatemala to apply for asylum there instead. Top officials at DHS would soon be having the same conversations with the leaders of El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama. The goal, in effect, was to shift the US border farther south—some called it the “invisible wall.”
The Americans felt they were running out of options. More immigrants than ever before were trying to enter the US and had fewer legal means to do so. By the end of 2019, one million migrants—most of them from Central America—would be arrested at the southern border, a 90 percent increase from the year before and the highest total in twelve years. “These are numbers no immigration system in the world is designed to handle,” said the head of Customs and Border Protection.
American officials believed the system was being abused. Only a fraction of those who applied for asylum would receive it, the acting secretary pointed out at the embassy in Guatemala City. The legal standards were exacting and esoteric. Fleeing a gang, for example, was legally distinct from fleeing a repressive government, even if the gang controlled a country like a shadow state.
Leaving a country that had become too dangerous wasn’t the basis for asylum; leaving it under specific threats of imminent death or torture was. Fending off starvation didn’t count as a form of persecution. Immigration law didn’t align with the muddled exigencies of the region, and most applicants, however sympathetic, would find their entry barred.
The last time Congress had reformed the immigration system was 1990, and that effort had been piecemeal. The asylum system became one of the final open doors for legal immigration—and it was open only a crack. But the federal bureaucracy was incapable of handling so many people, and the mechanisms of government were buckling.
In 2009, when Barack Obama took office, there was a backlog of half a million asylum cases. By the end of the Trump administration, the queue had reached 1.3 million. On average, it took about twenty‑four months to resolve an asylum claim. In the meantime, more asylum seekers arrived. Some were allowed to enter the country on the grounds that they would eventually appear before a judge; others were jailed, summarily deported, or expelled straight into Mexico. The randomness of the system was a cruelty all its own.
Immigration policy is governed by a politics of permanent crisis, with the border as its staging ground. One of the core premises of US immigration policy—true under Democrats as well as Republicans—is deterrence: turn away enough people, and others will stop trying to come. The practice is called the Consequence Delivery System, a term with an Orwellian charge.
In 2018, the Trump administration decided to separate parents and children who arrived together seeking asylum. The idea originated from a furious government brainstorming session during a border emergency in 2014, but top officials had dismissed it as inhumane. Under Trump, the government delivered the most brutal consequence imaginable, but migrants were undeterred. Staying home was worse than leaving and facing the punishment.
I happened to be en route to Tapachula when I learned of the meeting in Guatemala City and rerouted in the Mexico City airport. As a result, I spent one day with DHS personnel in Guatemala, and the next in Mexico with the very people DHS was trying to discourage. These two worlds were deeply intertwined, and yet they seemed barely to touch. It is the mission of this book to be 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.
Each of the last three American presidents dealt with a major humanitarian emergency at the border, and each time the American public experienced it as a separate incident. One came in 2014, the next in 2019, the third in 2021. The latest crisis was always the worst, until the next one. But these were all different chapters of the same story, which went back to 1980.
That was the year the US first codified refugee and asylum law, while also deepening its involvement in two major civil wars in Central America. The first asylum seekers were escaping regimes the US was arming and supporting in the name of fighting communism. American immigration policy still largely focused on legalizing the undocumented and dealing with the arrival of Mexicans at the border.
But US foreign policy was changing that. The government was creating new categories of immigrants and, in turn, reshaping American life from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Immigrants have a way of transforming two places at once: their new homes and their old ones. Rather than cleaving apart the worlds of the US, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the Americans were irrevocably binding them together.
In the 1980s, administrations in Washington saw Central America through the totalizing prism of the Cold War. Over the next few decades, the fear of the spread of leftism morphed into a fear of the spread of people. A straight line extends between the two, pulled taut during the intervening years of forced emigration, mass deportation, and political expediency. Immigration laws draw sharp boundaries around citizenship and identity, casting this history aside. Politics is a form of selective amnesia. The people who survive it are our only insurance against forgetting.
From Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis by Jonathan Blitzer. Copyright © 2024. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.