The Secret History


In 1980, as El Salvador exploded with student protests and violent military reprisals, Juan Romagoza was an aspiring heart surgeon. Once the valedictorian of his high school class, he had earned a scholarship from the Presidential Palace to study medicine in El Salvador. A high school student organizer, suffering from gunshot wounds after soldiers fired into a crowd of demonstrators, was rushed to a hospital where Romagoza was assisting. After four hours of surgery, the young patient was stabilized—until the military arrived, ordered everyone to the ground, and fired again upon the teenager, still lying on the hospital gurney.

This is the unforgiving and illogical world Jonathan Blitzer’s Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis addresses. It is an immense work that is both a modern history of Central America and a collection of oral histories from those who have survived. Through sources turned characters—and their pursuit of asylum, justice, and survival—Blitzer takes us on a borderless, nonlinear journey through brutal military dictatorships, smugglers, the changing maze of U.S. immigration law, and an asylum policy that has been politicized since its inception. Ultimately, the book succeeds in holding a mirror up to our present-day crisis on the southern border and how it evolved.

A staff writer at the New Yorker, Blitzer spent the four years of the Trump administration “studying the history of the immigration system at a moment when it was being dismantled.” Among his subjects was Romagoza, whose pursuit of asylum during the 1980s, the author came to realize, coincided with “the years of its construction.”

At the start of the pandemic, the two spoke often: every weekday at first and then weekly as vaccines arrived and travel restrictions eased. Romagoza had been kidnapped and brutalized. After being shot in the left hand, he could no longer continue as a surgeon. His asylum-seeking journey led him to become an advocate for public health initiatives, first in San Francisco and later in Washington, D.C. Eventually, he testified against the former head of El Salvador’s National Guard, who had command responsibility for his torture.

Throughout the book, Blitzer incorporates many different settings and characters, creating a sprawling, detailed account of the region’s recent history. His first two sections explore the military dictatorships of Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and the rise of Salvadoran street gangs into the 1990s and 2000s. He then goes on to detail the Trump administration’s third-rail option of separating children from families at the border, as well as the United Nation’s short-lived but essential International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). His fourth and final section functions as an afterword, describing his motivations and his sources.

The operative word in Blitzer’s subtitle is making. Though the Obama and Biden administrations have been far from perfect, it was Trump’s policy of “zero tolerance” that permitted removing children from parents upon detention. Blitzer illustrates how more than 5,600 children were taken from their parents without an effective system to track their whereabouts. Asylum seekers were caught in a crossfire of misinformation, many deported to Mexico with distant future court dates. Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here pins responsibility for this on Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, and Department of Justice lawyer Gene Hamilton, all of whom worked to weaponize lower federal courts and leaned into the Supreme Court as their final safeguard.

A metaphor that runs throughout the book involves the keeping of lists, names, and identification numbers, the fragility of lives and trajectories summarized in cold ledgers, the only proof for thousands seeking asylum in the north. Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga was separated from her children by Trump and was one of the first parents reunified under Biden. She originally applied for asylum at El Paso’s processing center, where in a politicized Texas “just 3 percent of seekers between 2013 and 2017” were granted asylum, as opposed to the national average of 40 percent. “One judge, speaking from the bench,” Blitzer writes, referred to El Paso as “the ‘bye-bye place.’” Understanding the odds stacked against her, Zúniga kept a handwritten ledger during detention, listing the names of mothers and their children, as well as immigration-processing numbers, creating an analog tally that immigration officials never kept themselves. What government records did exist were “indecipherable,” Blitzer tells us. “The administration was separating thousands of families without a plan for how to reunite them.”

In places, I would have liked to see Blitzer pan out and write about Latin America at large during the 1970s and 1980s, including the rise of El Salvador and Guatemala’s anti-Indigenous, conservative, and military- and U.S.-backed dictatorships. But this is not a shortcoming so much as a desire for more. As it is, Blitzer weaves the strands of oral history and hard data to vivid effect here. His keen eye for nuance in language, as well as a gift for setting and pacing, hold this multi-narrative work together and help create a sense of urgency.

The U.S. immigration system is selective and opportunistic theater, and Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here helps crystallize the stage directions from nearly five generations of actors.