The seed of a United States world order was first planted in the middle of the western hemisphere. Long before the advent of nuclear weapons and spaceflight, the tropical lands of Latin America beckoned to ambitious Yankee adventurers, entrepreneurs, and politicians, who set out on military and commercial expeditions in search of glory and profit. On assorted Caribbean islands and above all in the verdant valleys of Central America and its “banana republics,” a United States world order began to take root.

William Walker was among the first gringos to notice the potential of Central America. In 1855 the Tennessee-born lawyer sailed south from San Francisco with a few dozen fellow mercenaries, arrived in Nicaragua during its three-year civil war, and proclaimed himself president. In 1909 President William Howard Taft sent the Marines to the same country. In between, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the US Navy to wrest free an isthmus from Colombia. Soon after that, American engineers directed the huge excavation and building project that became the Panama Canal.

In Central America, as elsewhere, the imperial ambitions of the United States fused a fever for economic profit with ideas of racial superiority. Walker undertook his unauthorized, private military enterprise to enrich himself enormously (a practice then called filibustering). He legalized slavery in Nicaragua and proclaimed that his military campaign proved the superiority of the “pure white American race” over the “mixed Hispano-Indian race.” The Panama Canal became the largest public works project in American history up to that point, as big a boon to the US economy as the Transcontinental Railroad. In the US-ruled Canal Zone, a managerial class of white American southerners enforced segregation among the employees and residents.

In the nineteenth century Central America was a metaphor for the possibilities of empire. In the twentieth, as war, revolution, and counterrevolution spread through El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Central America became, like Vietnam, a metaphor for empire’s ugliness. Now, in the twenty-first, the needy masses of Central America and the cast of vicious Salvadoran gang members filling hour after hour on cable news have become a metaphor for the decline of empire and the forces that have brought it about.

Today thousands of centroamericana nannies help to raise the children of the US middle and upper classes, and laborers of Central American descent build, maintain, and clean office buildings and suburban tract homes from Silicon Valley to the Hamptons. On their radios and televisions, these essential workers can hear Donald Trump proclaim that caravans of immigrants from Central America and elsewhere are “destroying the blood of our country.”

Imperialism and racism are not the central subjects of Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis, Jonathan Blitzer’s new history of Central America’s recent relationship with the United States and the origins of the current immigration “crisis.” Policy decisions made in Washington, D.C., dominate the story. Again and again US leaders make shortsighted, cruel, and fateful choices that bring suffering and mayhem to the Central American people—and unleash a chaotic torrent of Central Americans immigrating to the US. But the violence and pain of empire are everywhere in his book, and questions of race and American identity linger behind nearly all the policymakers’ actions.

Blitzer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, begins with a portrait of immigrant insecurity: ten people from Honduras are stuck in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, a way station on the journey to the United States. It’s 2019, and most of them have already been deported once from the US; now they are praying for deliverance from purgatory. “Their immigration status,” Blitzer writes, “had become a defining, immutable fact of who they now were.” In this moment in the US when so much about our identities is more fluid than ever, centroamericanos are fixed in their status as outsiders and by their membership in the sad and ostensibly dangerous tribe called “immigrant.”

In The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that during the ugliest days of Jim Crow he used to listen to sympathetic white people discuss the plight of the “American Negro” and hear an unspoken question on the tips of their tongues: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Reading Blitzer’s book, I realized that’s what we centroamericanos (I’m the son of Guatemalan immigrants) have become in the US imagination. Our histories and our mestizo, Indian, and African bodies have become a problem. The 2024 election may well be determined by the televised pathos of people who look like me—by the images of our families teeming behind the border fence and filling shelters in US cities, by press conferences in which even Democratic mayors and governors who supposedly believe in compassion and social justice, ask angrily, “What are we supposed to do with these people?”


The relationship between the United States and Latin America is one of the critical questions of our time, and not just because right-wing nationalist rhetoric says it is. For two generations now the US has effectively assimilated millions of undocumented immigrants into a caste of low-paid labor exempt from most legal protections. In the last decades of the twentieth century more than one million Central Americans migrated to the United States, joining an even larger flow of Mexicans prompted by a US free trade agreement and a subsequent crisis in the Mexican economy. Between 1990 and 2010 the number of undocumented people in the United States tripled.

American wealth has long been built on the creation of new groups of outsiders, from indentured servants and slaves to “coolies” and now “illegals.” Latin American immigrants have become an especially pitiful and demonized example of this phenomenon, a group whose perceived proximity to illegality also makes them a passive, highly exploitable, and oddly dependable workforce. By the US government’s own estimates, 41 percent of hired farmworkers in this country are undocumented. Nearly one in three construction workers is Latino. Despite this evident dependence on a workforce from Latin America, “illegals” has become a noun and a freely used slur, and the term “anchor baby” is applied even to US-born citizens. (Correspondingly and predictably, conservative politicos clamor for an end to birthright citizenship.)

Blitzer spends much of his book trying to fill out a portrait of Central American immigrants and the various manmade and natural disasters that have set them on their journey northward, so that the reader will know them as more than just “blurred and anonymous” media portrayals or “numbers on government spreadsheets,” as he puts it. His stated mission is to act as a “go-between” for the two sides of the immigration debate, allowing Homeland Security officials to see the humanity in migrants huddled in a Mexican basement and allowing those migrants to “participate, for once, in the privileged backroom conversations that decide their fate.” There’s more than a little naiveté in that statement, but Blitzer’s reporting and writing are first-rate, and the story he tells is one every American should know.

Blitzer begins with El Salvador, a country of six million that since the 1970s has suffered through gang violence and a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions. He recounts the recent history of the Salvadoran people and their relationship with the United States through the eyes of two subjects. The first is Juan Romagoza, a surgeon completing his residency at a hospital outside San Salvador. Romagoza is at the hospital one day in 1980 when a wounded young man is brought in, having been shot by the police during an antigovernment demonstration. The patient is the leader of a national association of high school students, and Romagoza assists in the four-hour surgery that saves his life. Later that evening Romagoza and a nurse are alone with him when a half-dozen masked, armed men come bursting through the door. They order Romagoza to lie down, then open fire on his patient.

Blitzer gives an intimate, horrifying description of this assassination, one of the thousands of murders carried out by El Salvador’s death squads: spent cartridges raining upon the floor, a hospital bed rocking and rattling from the force of the bullets. He then demonstrates, persuasively, how these death squads were, in part, creations of the Salvadoran armed forces.

For Blitzer the current US immigration crisis stems from this violence. Under the Carter and Reagan administrations, the United States helped silence a nascent democratic movement in El Salvador, supporting military regimes that murdered thousands of people—including, in a single day in 1980, six of the top leaders of the nation’s leading center-left coalition. A tiny oligarchy known as the Fourteen Families ruled the country, and death squads dispatched plainclothesmen to kidnap, torture, and murder people, depositing their disfigured bodies in the trash. Images of these corpses and other Central American horrors filled the US media in the 1970s and 1980s. For the American right, the bloodletting was a necessary evil. “The nuns were clearly not just nuns,” said Jeane Kirkpatrick, one of Reagan’s top foreign policy advisers, when Salvadoran soldiers murdered four American churchwomen in 1980. “The nuns were also political activists.”

Blitzer brings us inside this carnage, narrating Romagoza’s encounters with one act of violence after another: “Activists gulped down their final breaths before expiring in his arms.” After the murder of the young man, Romagoza keeps the cartridges and seeks out the archbishop Óscar Romero, a prelate who repeatedly denounced the military’s atrocities in his sermons and in his radio-broadcast homilies. There is, Blitzer points out, no one else to whom he can report the crime. “I was a witness, Father,” Romagoza says. “I was there.”


Archbishop Romero takes the bullets and says, enigmatically, “Children, they’re just children.” Is he referring to the victims or their soldier-killers? Or both? The archbishop promises to report Romagoza’s testimony to a Catholic human rights monitor, but shortly afterward is himself killed by a death squad while attending Mass in a San Salvador chapel. Eventually our courageous doctor is detained when, having sought out a patient in a rural village, he watches the army open fire on families celebrating a religious festival. Soldiers take him to a military base, accuse him of being a guerrilla, strap him to a cement block, shock him with electrodes, and sodomize him with a metal rod.

Who is behind it all? Blitzer takes us into Ronald Reagan’s White House, where the jovial Midwest-born actor has surrounded himself with cold war ideologues who craft an aggressive counterinsurgency strategy. If not for their decisive (and extravagantly funded) intervention, El Salvador’s rickety military dictatorship would have quickly been defeated, one more fallen “domino” in the battle against communism.

When Romagoza is forced to flee the country he winds up in Guatemala, another cold war battlefield. This one is ruled by a dictatorship with totalitarian control, its military’s top ranks filled with graduates from the US Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, including General Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto ruler of Guatemala in 1982 and 1983. The military’s scorched-earth policy against leftist guerrillas led to the destruction of dozens of Maya villages; a Guatemalan court later found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and ruled that he and his fellow generals were responsible for the death of 5 percent of the Ixil Maya, or seven thousand people. He was sentenced to eighty years in prison.

American helicopters, bombs, and bullets were used in these and other Central American massacres. When forensic anthropologists excavated the hamlet of El Mozote, where the Salvadoran military murdered more than eight hundred people in 1981, the bullets they retrieved from the corpses bore the markings of the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Missouri.

Today the cold war can feel like a distant fever, the stuff of old espionage thrillers. But let us remember that in Guatemala and El Salvador, as elsewhere, it was a class war. Guatemalan trade unions and peasant and student groups didn’t just fight for democracy and its freedoms: they demanded better wages and working conditions and more funding for public education, health services, and other social programs. In Guatemala, US spies pulled off one of the fastest and most comprehensive American victories of the cold war: the 1954 coup, which overthrew a left-leaning government that had pursued a land redistribution program and other reforms. (Giving land to the landless created a middle class and helped bring widespread prosperity to North America, but the US stunted that same process in Guatemala.) For decades the CIA-installed regime imposed brutal neoliberal policies on the Guatemalan people. Today public disinvestment in Guatemala has reached such an extreme that I never use the mail to send packages to my family in Guatemala City because the country’s notoriously unreliable postal service has shut down for years at a time.

Primarily, Blitzer is concerned with the aspects of the Central American story that relate to the United States, focusing on the individual hardships of men and women whose lives take them across the US border. We meet refugees and exiles from El Salvador and elsewhere and learn how they have become tangled up in US immigration and asylum laws. Blitzer doesn’t show us the imaginative and often joyful improvisation of Central America’s revolutions, essential to understanding the region. In El Salvador, for example, rebels of all ranks wrote poetry incessantly: one of the revolution’s leaders, Roque Dalton, is beloved today as the country’s national poet. True, like radicals from time immemorial, they sometimes turned against one another: Dalton was executed by his own leftist comrades.

But the mission of Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here is to illustrate the horrors that US policy has inflicted on immigrant bodies and the political tug-of-war that created that policy. Blitzer’s next Central American protagonist, Eddie Anzora, is a young man whose life is turned upside down by his immigration status. When we first meet Eddie he is a kid without much of a connection to El Salvador at all; his mother migrated to the United States in the 1980s, when he was three. Eddie grows up in hardscrabble South Central Los Angeles. Blitzer describes that world as a grim place where young Central Americans are “brutalized” by Black and Mexican street gangs and a “vicious racial hierarchy” leaves Salvadoran teenagers “trapped.”*

Eddie himself is a survivor, full of life, and a perceptive witness to the madness around him. He’s playing a game of street football in South LA with his friends when a car drives past and its long-haired, goth-looking occupants open fire. Eddie isn’t hit. But a new gang has announced its arrival: the Mara Salvatrucha. When he’s eleven, Eddie joins a crew of graffiti taggers, and the next year he lands in jail for vandalism, petty theft, and disorderly conduct. To set him straight, his mother sends him back to El Salvador—a foreign land to him. When Eddie makes it back to LA, his old tagging crew has grown to almost two hundred people.

He spends a few years trying to hold a job and keep out of trouble, but then his car is stopped and police discover an ounce of marijuana in his glove compartment. It’s a minor offense and his first as an adult, so Eddie’s public defender advises him to plead guilty. He does, and soon afterward he’s facing deportation proceedings. He skips his sentencing and spends six years as a fugitive, during which he builds a music promotion business. Finally immigration agents surprise him on his way to get a haircut, and he’s deported to El Salvador.

Eddie, Dr. Romagoza, and Blitzer’s other Central American subjects are all good, smart men and women. Eddie endures his deportation with his dignity and personal ambition intact; he ends up working at a call center in San Salvador. Romagoza eventually becomes a health care advocate in the United States. But in choosing to tell a Central American story solely on the terrain of a public immigration debate in which we are a “problem,” Blitzer finds himself wading ever deeper into a world of gang members, deported and detained aliens, and extortionists. The account and the terms of his investigation leave the reader with a deeply skewed understanding of the Central American experience—and of what truly brought about the immigration “crisis.”

Blitzer effectively illustrates the timidity and opportunism of the US political class, which has repeatedly blocked reforms that would allow an orderly and safe flow of workers and their families across the border. After all, our postpandemic economy remains desperately short of workers. As the US Chamber of Commerce pointed out recently, even if every unemployed person in this country found work, roughly three million jobs would go unfilled.

But rather than increase legal migration, restrictive immigration laws and border walls help create crowds of asylum seekers who, if they manage to gain temporary admittance to the United States, are not allowed to work and become a burden on local government. In a September 2023 op-ed, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg put forth a simple, sensible solution: Congress should grant asylum seekers work authorization while their cases are decided. The passage of such legislation is unlikely because the spectacle of immigrants causing “chaos” in American cities and at the border bolsters the GOP’s anti-immigrant messaging. And so the lines of migrants at the border, and the busses to New York City and elsewhere, will continue.

It’s nearly impossible today for ordinary Central Americans and other Latin Americans to migrate to the US “the right way,” as conservative pundits demand, or even to visit. Last summer my septuagenarian Guatemalan aunt was denied a visa to travel to the US to attend my book reading at the Los Angeles Central Library. It didn’t matter that she was a retired nurse and a property owner, or that her nephew was a US citizen and university professor. She was barred from this country by a policy whose premise is that Central Americans are more likely than not to become public charges to the American people—or gang members.

No one in my extended Central American–American circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances has ever been a gang member. (It’s ridiculous to have to say that, of course, but such are the times we live in.) I did see my share of gang violence, however, when I covered South Central Los Angeles for The Los Angeles Times in the 1980s and 1990s, around the time when it was becoming the Latino barrio Blitzer describes. I remember most clearly interviewing a young Mexican mother whose nine-year-old son had been shot to death while sitting in the car with her. But I also saw the everyday coexistence and mixing in a neighborhood that is known today for its hybrid “Blaxican” culture.

The essayist and filmmaker Walter Thompson-Hernández has written extensively on growing up Blaxican, and LA’s many Blaxican musicians include the R&B singer Miguel, born Miguel Jontel Pimentel to an African American mother and a Mexican father. I documented this cultural mixing in its early stages by living in the home of a Guatemalan family who had come to South Central to buy their first property, a $110,000 stucco box with a pitched roof. I saw integrated Black and brown Little League baseball teams and preschools. Three decades later I met Latinx undergraduates who said “I’m from South Central” with the same proud edge in their voices as working-class New Yorkers who used to say “I’m from Brooklyn.” It doesn’t mean they’re traumatized; it means they’re claiming a bit of South Central’s cachet as a neighborhood of cool, unbreakable Black people, and folding it into their own sense of their Latinidad and Americanness. It’s just one of the countless ways that Central American and Latino immigration is shifting the definition of American identity. All of that is, of course, far outside the scope of Central American immigration seen as a crisis.

In 1991 and 1992 centroamericanos joined two urban riots in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Blitzer, following the mainstream media coverage of the day, paints both as tribal conflicts—“Hispanics versus Blacks versus Whites,” as one D.C. resident puts it. Blitzer writes of Los Angeles: “The city had become a hotbed of tribalism and racial tension.” This glosses over the great crash of sociological and economic forces then unfolding in both cities. The Los Angeles riots, a conflagration whose prologue, unfolding, and aftermath I witnessed as a young reporter, were really several overlapping events: an African American uprising against police abuse; a wave of revenge attacks against Korean merchants; and a Latino poverty riot, an act of defiance by a people just beginning to realize that the United States intended to make them a permanent underclass. And in universities and august corporate institutions such as the Los Angeles Times, members of the Black and brown middle class directed their anger after the unrest at white administrators and managers, a harbinger of the reckonings to come a generation later during the Black Lives Matter movement. Years of deindustrialization and social disinvestment were creating an increasingly unequal social order with fierce segregation by race and class—and we were all angry about it.

The riots, in turn, helped set off a backlash against the immigrants filling so many low-wage jobs in the new economy and bringing dramatic cultural change to California. At about this time the writer David Rieff proclaimed my hometown the “Capital of the Third World.” Two years after the riots California voters passed Proposition 187, which denied public services to the undocumented, one of the first big victories of a nationalistic, xenophobic movement that eventually spread to every corner of the United States.

These days, of course, the Central American gangster has become a crude trope of conservative propaganda. As Blitzer’s narrative plows forward, GOP politicians come to see anti-immigrant rhetoric as a magic wand that never fails to deliver a bounty of votes. Pete Wilson wins reelection as governor of California in 1994 by nearly fifteen points thanks to ads showing hordes of immigrants crossing the border as a voice intones, “They keep coming.” Twenty years later Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia loses a primary challenge by eleven points to a Tea Party candidate who links Cantor to “amnesty” for immigrants and declares that a vote for Cantor is a “vote for open borders.” In 2016 Donald Trump campaigns with parents of people killed by immigrants and keeps up the rhetoric after he is elected. As Blitzer puts it, “Never had an American president spent so much time talking about an obscure Latino street gang.”

More than one Central American innocent gets swept up in the crude police and immigration crackdowns that follow the crimes committed by these barbarous centroamericanos, whose evolution into a fearsome criminal force in El Salvador and the United States Blitzer can’t avoid writing about, even though, as he points out, in a supposedly gang-infested place like New York’s Suffolk County there were just a few hundred gang members among the county’s 60,000 Salvadoran residents. Still, we watch sixteen-year-old Elena Sandoval, a US citizen, get kidnapped by an MS-13 gang member; she’s the victim of a crime, but that doesn’t matter to the immigration officials, who later identify her as a “gang associate” while trying to deport her Salvadoran boyfriend.

As the movement to stop immigration takes over Washington, politicians and officials in both parties embrace ramping up “enforcement.” Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here becomes a particularly harrowing tale when Blitzer describes how these new, get-tough laws and regulations are created. In exchange for relaxed asylum laws, Democrats agree to increase funding for border enforcement. But the money comes with quotas on detention, leading immigration agents to scour Latino neighborhoods in search of bodies to deport. Even Border Patrol agents are outraged. In New Jersey, Agent Scott Mechkowski is assigned to a “fugitive operations” team that is directed to arrest one thousand immigrants annually. “It was an impossible number, and every agent on every fugitive operations team knew it,” Blitzer writes, even if the agents targeted immigrants whose only crimes were DUIs. When the flow of undocumented immigrants increases again, during the Obama administration, a top ICE official proposes arresting parents traveling with children, a policy that would strip those children of their guardians; administration advisers reject the idea. But when Trump is elected he incarcerates breastfeeding immigrant babies.

The immigrant peril is to this century what the Red Scare was to the last one: a bipartisan deal with the devil. President Clinton held off the right by building the first wall at the California–Mexico border. In Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here, President Obama becomes the nation’s “deporter in chief” because, as Blitzer writes, “if the administration appeared to lose control over the border, its entire immigration agenda would unravel.” He describes the Democrats’ embrace of stricter enforcement through the eyes of Cecilia Muñoz, a former activist at the National Council of La Raza who becomes a high-ranking Obama official. Muñoz, the book’s most powerful Latina, becomes a tragic figure, struggling to “keep it together” during a 2014 surge in immigration: “That summer was the hardest of my life.” In 2006 millions of Latino immigrants and their supporters took to the streets in a series of rallies and school walkouts for immigration reform, a landmark event that goes completely unmentioned in the book. Why write page after page about one tortured Latina official and not a word about the historic mobilization of millions of immigrant protesters?

The biggest villain in Blitzer’s policy-driven narrative is the ideologue Stephen Miller, a Californian who becomes the face of the Trump administration’s harshest policies, including family separation and child detention. Blitzer calls him “a public scourge, and a catchall symbol of the racism and malice of the Trump government” who embraces the role of “archvillain.” The most selfless heroes are the religious activists who create a nationwide sanctuary movement in the 1980s to stealthily guide asylum seekers from Guatemala and El Salvador, eventually helping hundreds resettle in the United States. But all these heroes and villains are only the newest actors in a centuries-long drama of immigration and immigration restrictions.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act established limits on Latin American immigration for the first time, helping to create the underclass of migrant laborers that picks most US crops to this day. A 1924 law had established quotas that were aimed largely at limiting Eastern and Southern European migration, with the express purpose of preserving the Anglo-Saxon character of the United States. Before these restrictions were put in place, the labor of those reviled Europeans helped build Midwestern cities into skyscraper-filled metropolises, just as Chinese labor fueled the boom of the West before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Mexican laborers built the irrigation systems and other infrastructure that made an agricultural bonanza possible in Texas and California in the early twentieth century—and then endured the mass deportations of the 1930s. The use and abuse of immigrant labor as tools of nation building and race engineering is a long-established element of the American normal. Only if you step outside of history does it look like a “crisis.”

In the end, most of the immigrants we meet in Blitzer’s book wind up back in Central America. As generous as it is to every immigrant he encounters, his book is largely restricted to a series of traumatic and humiliating first acts. There are now millions of centroamericanos who have lived a second and third act in the United States. This flawed, beautiful country is our home, and we’ve left our mark on it, in the intimacies of urban neighborhoods and in the nation’s civic and cultural life.

As the Roman Empire aged, its history became ever more entangled with that of the peoples it fought and conquered. Rome gradually assimilated the barbarous Germanic tribes into their society, with the army especially dependent on its German recruits. The religion of another group of reviled outsiders, Christianity, became the empire’s official faith. And so it will be with us, the reviled and barbarous Central Americans. We are already soldiers in the United States military, preachers in American cities, and state legislators and federal officials.

When I think of the unraveling of the rule of law in Central America, I think of the dollar bills funding that chaos, so many of them spent by a US drug addict. The cartel-driven crime and corruption in places like Honduras are fueled by the pain and dysfunction of faded, postindustrial towns in Ohio and upstate New York. More than 150 years after William Walker showed up in Nicaragua, US and Central American history are not just intertwined; they are becoming one and the same.