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Home » Q&A: Jonathan Blitzer on immigration

Q&A: Jonathan Blitzer on immigration

In 2015, a laptop and hard drive containing government documents detailing the atrocities that occurred during the 1980s El Salvador civil war were stolen from the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights. The story caught the attention of Jonathan Blitzer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who traveled to San Salvador to confront one of the colonels accused in the documents, whose government had been supported by several US presidents. While reporting, Blitzer investigated an industry of large call centers—a business that required a sizable population of native English speakers—that had popped up in El Salvador as a result of the unprecedented scale of deportations after the Clinton administration signed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Bumping into the colonel in front of a hotel, Blitzer was struck by how immediate these reverberations of the war and US immigration policy were for Salvadorans. Thirty years of American political influence was playing out on the streets of Central America. 

These concurrent and related stories led to the publication of Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here, Blitzer’s narrative history of the interconnected fates of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala—and the US. Piecing together testimony from migrants, American officials, advocates, and lawyers, Blitzer presents immigration not as a series of actions and reactions, but as a central story we can no longer afford to treat as a subcurrent in our political debate. The current crisis, as Blitzer describes it, did not spring up overnight; to best understand the problem, he contextualizes the forces propelling migrants to come, to be deported, and then to return. 

Blitzer’s historical excavation is especially relevant today. Following Republican Congress members’ blocking immigration reform earlier this month, the White House is considering executive action to enact a crackdown on the southern border. This is playing out while a performative impeachment hearing for the US secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, is underway. Blitzer wrote in that piece that “the politics of immigration have always been cynical, obscene even,”  and yet Congress is no closer to passing comprehensive immigration reform. 

Blitzer and I chatted last week about the blurring of worlds over the southern border, how the press can better cover immigration, and how disastrous deferring hard decisions on immigration policy has proved. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


KL: How did you start covering immigration?

JB: I spent a lot of time in the Spanish-speaking world, doing journalistic translation and human rights work. I was fascinated by historical memory, the sweep of history, and the pursuit of justice. I was also doing a lot along the border. Since 2013, I spent significant time moving back and forth between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. It was those years where El Paso was considered the safest city in America in terms of violent crime. And yet, right across the border, you had a horrific drug war and subsequent government crackdown—conditions that were among the most dangerous in the entire world. People were drawn to this dissonance. To try to understand how these two cities—that are a mile across this artificial divide and were woven together from their very beginning—have such vastly different realities. This idea that the border itself was fluid and that there was a third term—it wasn’t the US, it wasn’t Mexico, it was the US and Mexico. That was linguistic, it was cultural, it was geographic. I always thought that the story of the border was recondite history that went back to the nineteenth century, and in fact, the reality was No, the lines were blurred right up to the present. What connected me to the immigration stories was more a function of seeing this blurring of worlds. The harder the US government tried to insist on policing the dividing line, the more intertwined things became.

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How did you go about reporting that blurring of worlds? That third term?

What I was most interested in, and what I wanted to try to contribute, was this broader historical sense. Also, a systematic commitment to getting deep into the lives of all of the players involved. The core of this book are four people—three of them had been migrants at some point, and one is a Guatemalan leader who stays in Guatemala and fights—but if you take the same narrative approach to people who are in the policy spaces or adjacent to those circles, in Washington or across the region, the canvas fills out. One thought was to take that granular approach to everyone involved in the bigger story, because it’s one of the ways to make vivid the disconnect between the lives that migrants lead and the policies and politics that lawmakers go through.

What often happens for understandable, inevitable reasons is when you’re telling a big story, you freeze out part of the picture in order to zero in on one person in particular. Over the years, there had been a blurring effect as a result of that, where we were not seeing the migrants, the lawmakers, the activists, the advocates, and political actors in this unconscious, ongoing dialogue. Which is how it actually played out historically. The degree to which, over the years, the world of the US and particular countries in Central America have become fused together is informational, it’s historical, and it’s also, in a certain sense, spiritual. Not just in geopolitical terms, political terms, economic terms, but on an almost DNA level of the individual people. People have come to embody this fusion of worlds, and they live it in a natural, unselfconscious way. More than anything else in my reporting, that is what inspired me to try to tell the bigger story.  

What advice can you give about covering this bigger picture of immigration stories?

Immigration is a vast subject. There is this weird notion calcified in repetitions of certain stories in the press: that immigration is the border, or an immigration story that has a wonky policy, or an immigration story of horrible personal travails. I was looking at how newspapers were covering the Trump years and immigration, generally. Initially, I felt jealous that newspapers had this incredible machinery to fuel their coverage of a vast subject. Then you had people like me who floated in a features space telling human stories. There was a moment when my exasperation at how geographically and logistically limited I was compared to these bigger news operations turned into a sense of Well, actually, there’s an opportunity here because I’m able to see a continuity in this story. If the team were bigger and I covered a single leg of it, I would miss how the story evolves, firsthand. The only way to cover this story in a dynamic and meaningful way is to pin the vastness of the story in geographic, historical, and political terms. It can be overwhelming and often results in a compartmentalizing effect in the journalism. But, if you think through creative ways of pinging the different elements of this much bigger story off one another, you get dimensions that aren’t available on first view.

Is there a way for journalists to approach immigration other than the bruising blow-by-blow of political theater?

One thing that is frustrating to watch within the coverage of immigration policy getting transformed into political rhetoric is that the actual substance of policy questions—which can seem technical but frankly aren’t so deeply complex that they can’t be rendered intelligible for people—gets put through this meat grinder of bipartisan American politics. There is not an independent analysis of the proposals, and, as a result, there’s this assumption baked into coverage that Republicans got serious on immigration faster than Democrats. I wish there was an independent assessment of the proposals, so we could dispense with this idea that one side is tougher than the other. This notion that toughness equals common sense is wrong. It’s like we have to pretend that we can’t engage with the substance, because the story is about how one side is trying to game the proposals against the other side. One of the striking things right now is you have the White House trying to flip the script on Republicans. They went to the negotiating table, made concessions that no Democrat has made in years because the politics have gotten so oppressive and so dangerous for them. The Republicans obviously exploded those negotiations for reasons entirely related to Donald Trump in the election. But when you look at it from a substantive angle, the underlying question that these two parties ostensibly set out to try to solve with negotiation and legislation continues to go unaddressed. If you’re only understanding these dilemmas in terms of Well, there was a Senate bill that could have helped with this, then you’re missing how complex that dilemma is.

Is there a specific failing of the “serious” or “tough” versus bleeding-heart framing that we often see?

There is this assumption that anyone pushing back against the Republican position is pushing back from a purely moral conviction. Morals and ethics should be a part of this—we’re talking about human beings—and that should never be far from our minds. There is also a very compelling way of having this conversation in which you subject these Republican proposals to scrutiny—not as immigration rights advocates, but agency operators at Customs and Border Protection. In other words, DHS, who are not people famous for their humanitarianism, would look at some of these proposals and say, Well, this is just harshness for the sake of sounding harsh. This is meaningless. Operationally, this doesn’t help us at all. In fact, it only makes the problem worse. If there’s one frustration I have with journalistic coverage of this issue, it’s that the tough policies are somehow taken to be essential. If you push back against them, it’s because you’re a bleeding-heart liberal. If you talk to people in this space—whether lawmakers, agency operators, historians—what you hear back overwhelmingly is that, even leaving aside the moral component, these tougher measures that have become this baseline in mainstream conversations are not practical.

What advice do you have to make sure the historical context of American foreign policy in Central America is included in immigration reporting?

I didn’t want an American reader to feel personally accused. What that meant on a writing level and reporting level was to make sure that there was a carefulness in how the story was narrated. I wasn’t putting my thumb on the scale unnecessarily. The facts, themselves, are most overwhelming when they’re related in an understated, direct, clear way. You don’t need me to put spin on the ball here. There is certainly a temptation when you see the historical wreckage, but it was very important to narrate it with a steady accretion of information that would hopefully be revelatory. But I didn’t want people to feel immediately alienated or defensive while reading it, because I didn’t want to turn people away. All right, here we go, another rant about American imperialism. I get it, we’ve committed horrible atrocities in the world. Sure. What do you want from me? I wanted people to open up to it. That is very important at a moment like this. The space in which we’re understanding this issue politically and historically is getting smaller. The politics are just banging the complexity out of this topic.

What is your interpretation of the current debacle over border policy happening in Congress?

What is incredible to me is, once someone uncorks the bottle of some of these anti-asylum policies, it’s very hard to put them back in. You’re seeing right now that it is very hard for the Biden administration to clean up the mess that was unleashed during the Trump years. There is a lot of criticism that could be leveled against the Biden administration for its handling of border and asylum issues, but I’m sympathetic to the bind that they are in. The biggest legacy that Trump has had is that a lot of the things his administration introduced into the public discourse would have been inconceivable and unthinkable eight years ago. Moderate Democrats are now open to policies that would have been anathema to them years before. The center has shifted, and now mainstream Democrats are tuning in to a conversation that they’ve avoided for many years. There were uncomfortable decisions they probably should have made earlier—conversations I wish they were courageous enough to have—that would have pissed off their constituents but would have been in the service of a deeper reckoning. Now it is a perfect storm, and the roof is caving in on everyone because of the politics and because of the wider dynamics of mass migration.

What is at stake for immigration policy in November?  

The immigration issue is a real vulnerability for this White House. We’re only going to see Republicans and Republican state officials exploiting this issue more in the lead-up to November. And I don’t know that we’ve ever really seen that on this scale in this country before—the deliberate sowing of chaos by moving humans from one place to another to weaponize people and their lives against Democrats in an ongoing electoral battle. I just think it’s going to get incredibly ugly. It terrifies me, and I don’t see the situation de-escalating one bit.

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.

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