Featured Reviews

Jonathan Blitzer – Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here [Review]

Everyone Who Is GoneA Step Towards Welcoming Our Neighbors

A Feature Review of

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis
Jonathan Blitzer

Hardcover: Penguin Press, 2024
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Reviewed by Tim Hoiland

In the introduction to Everyone Who is Gone is Here, the New Yorker journalist Jonathan Blitzer notes that the three most recent United States presidents—Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama—have all had to deal with humanitarian emergencies at the southern border. In every case, prevailing narratives have taken each unfolding crisis to be an isolated incident. But to compartmentalize our understanding of immigration that way, Blitzer argues, is to fundamentally misunderstand what has been happening in this hemisphere for more than four decades now.

Many books have been written about the involvement of the United States in the Cold War, including important books focused on the decidedly less-cold manner in which that conflict played out in Central America. Similarly, many books continue to be written about immigration, ranging from first-person narratives by migrants themselves to books advocating either for or against the policies that form the backdrop of immigrants’ lives. Blitzer’s book deals with both of these themes, and more. What sets it apart, however, is the way he weaves these threads together as the one interwoven story it really is. And he does so with attention to the personal and the political, the micro and the macro, the historic and the present.

It’s an audacious approach that pays off.

Beyond his sheer audacity, though, Blitzer is a skilled journalist with a knack for empathy and an interest in the quotidian. He insists on telling three-dimensional human stories, convenient caricatures be damned. In these pages, we meet beloved heroes like Óscar Romero of El Salvador and notorious villains like Efraín Ríos Montt of Guatemala. We read about well-documented tragedies, including the massacres at Dos Erres and El Mozote, as well as key moments when the political winds in DC favored—or much more often, opposed—immigration reform. He meaningfully covers all the basics.

But thanks to Blitzer’s signature approach, he also introduces us to people whose stories we’d otherwise never know. Take Eddie, a thoroughly American kid whose family is from El Salvador, who gets into some low-level mischief in LA before getting caught up in the aftermath of the anti-immigrant backlash of the 1990s, and is eventually deported to a country that is every bit as foreign to him as one would imagine. We also meet Juan, a doctor who in the 1980s is targeted and captured in his native El Salvador. Once free, he flees to Guatemala, then to Mexico, eventually arriving in the United States, where he ultimately finds creative and sacrificial ways—despite legal risks, and physical handicaps as a result of torture—to provide medical care to those living in the shadows.

In these stories, we come to better understand the burdens immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so often carry as they seek to rebuild their lives in El Norte. Like Juan, some migrants bear on their bodies the physical scars of bullets or blades, telling signs of terrorized lives in untenable places. Others, especially women and girls, bear the shame of violation. And then there are the silences and the chasms—the erasures of people and places, of hopes and dreams. That’s a lot to carry.

And yet we are living in a time when these same men, women, and children—so often fleeing a near-certain death, wanting only a quiet life—are villainized. They are villainized cynically by pundits and politicians who know better, and they are villainized sincerely by our fellow citizens who don’t. Regardless, the accumulated disparagement heaps further burdens on top of the rest.

Reading this meticulous, humane, and astonishing book, I couldn’t help but be struck by the schizophrenia of American policies and attitudes toward immigrants, not just today but going back generations. Like me, you may have grown up feeling great fondness for the symbolic meaning of the Statue of Liberty and the words of that sonnet by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” And yet successive administrations—elected by the American people, ostensibly to represent our priorities and values—have failed to prioritize just, principled immigration reform. One recent administration was characterized by sheer inhumane cruelty; others have been marked by varying degrees of indifference. For families desperate to survive, the distinction between the two can be negligible.

If collectively we are going to move past the indifference and the cruelty, we will need to learn the stories of actual immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Which is to say, we will need to reject the caricatures. The best way to do that is to befriend people who have left homes and loved ones and livelihoods—almost always at great cost—to start over in a strange new land. But reading three-dimensional stories of such survivors is perhaps a good first step. In this emotionally charged election year, especially—one in which immigration will remain a key political wedge issue—every concerned citizen would benefit from reading this masterful, moving book.

Tim Hoiland

Tim Hoiland is Communications Director at 1MISSION, a community development organization with programs in Mexico and Central America. A dual citizen of Guatemala and the United States, he lives in Tempe, Arizona. Tim writes The Bookshelf, a Substack newsletter with essays on books and life. More of his writing can be found at timhoiland.com.

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