JUNE 19, 2020
MANY YEARS AGO, following a hitchhiking trip through Syria and Lebanon, I returned to the United States for a visit. Upon arrival to passport control at the Newark airport, I was asked to reveal the nature of my business in Syria in particular. My response — “I have friends there” — was quickly judged to be insufficient and perhaps even blasphemous, and the questioning officer demanded: “Why do you have friends in Syria?”
How to explain to US authorities that, for several months, Syrians and Lebanese had picked my companion and me up on the side of the road, accommodated us in their homes, and fed us relentlessly? And all of this for no other reason than, well, friendliness and hospitality.
The hostility of my reception in Newark pales in comparison to the “welcome” extended many incoming visitors to the United States — such as those fleeing violence, poverty, and other catastrophic situations. In his new book The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond, John Washington masterfully exposes the ruthlessness of US border policy, focusing primarily on the trajectory of a 24-year-old Salvadoran asylum seeker named Arnovis — who, unlike me, has had to deal with a lot more than a few minutes of shaming by immigration officials.
A single father facing death threats from the Barrio 18 gang and recruitment efforts by the rival MS-13, Arnovis undertakes the first of three attempts to reach the United States in 2017, a journey that will variously see him intercepted in Mexico; kidnapped and nearly killed; and detained, duped, and deported by the guardians of the American frontier.
The most traumatic experience occurs during the third attempt, when his young daughter Meybelín is taken from him at the border and the official promise of swift reunification is spontaneously forgotten: “[T]hey took me to another detention center and I asked, Where’s my daughter? And they told me, I didn’t you know had a daughter. Meybelín, I told them. Who’s Meybelín? She’s my daughter.”
Arnovis is deported alone to El Salvador, and his prolonged terror only comes to an end when, thanks in part to a rare onslaught of media coverage, the US government manages to remember who and where Meybelín is and to send her back home, as well — “home” unfortunately being a place of existential peril and other forms of terror.
As Washington notes, according to the US government,
you are eligible for asylum only if you have suffered persecution on account of an immutable characteristic — your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or your membership in a particular social group — and the government in your country of origin is either unwilling or unable to protect you.
And yet, in El Salvador, it seems life itself could technically qualify as an immutable characteristic that is grounds for asylum. Consistently ranking among the homicide capitals of the world, the small nation also plays host to security forces — frequently US-supported — with a habit of extrajudicial assassinations. So much for “protection.”
On account of the pervasive gang presence — with invisible boundaries delineating the territories of rival groups — an act as mundane as crossing the street can be lethal. As Washington documents, the United States happens to be largely responsible for the Salvadoran gang phenomenon in the first place — just as, throughout contemporary history, it has been responsible for backing right-wing atrocities and economic oppression in the country, including during the civil war of 1980–’92. On top of playing a significant role in rendering El Salvador inhospitable for many of its inhabitants, the United States has exhibited no qualms deporting Salvadoran asylum seekers to their deaths.
Much of the narrative material in Washington’s book was gathered during visits to Arnovis’s home in remote Corral de Mulas, in the Salvadoran department of Usulután, where despite the general poverty his family’s hospitality was remarkable. “Pedro, Arnovis’s father, would implacably insist that I take his spot in a hammock. I would eat three or four hearty meals a day while I stayed with them.” Indeed, the benevolence with which Washington is received in El Salvador stands in stark contrast to the reception accorded Arnovis in America — a place that has, as Washington writes, “built in, into its deepest foundation, the contradiction of claiming to be the land of the free […] and of engaging in the racist persecution of those clambering for freedom.”
As evidence of this core contradiction he quotes George Washington, incidentally his seventh-great-uncle, on his vision of the United States as a “safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind” — except for that part of mankind that was needed to perform slave labor.
Washington also physically retraces parts of Arnovis’s journey — crossing clandestinely from Guatemala to Mexico; riding atop the notorious La Bestia, also known as the “Train of Death” — but always with an acute awareness of his own entitlement. On the train, for example, he observes that Arnovis had been “running for his life, not engaged in a privileged gallivant borne out of journalistic solidarity, or whatever it was I had been doing.”
While Arnovis’s story is the backbone of The Dispossessed, Washington covers tons of other ground, as well. He discusses the origins of asylum as a protection against piracy, explores the nature and political functions of fear, draws on Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus as a “remarkable allegory for our present-day asylum struggle,” and decries “transnational corporate capitalist and neocolonial despoilment […] that upheaves countries and unroofs their people.”
Nor is Arnovis the only dispossessed person profiled by Washington. There’s Bertha, the 63-year-old Honduran grandmother with health complications who gets locked up for nearly two years in Texas by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — and who comments: “I hope, I hope that God forgives the United States.”
There’s Hilda, the Guatemalan woman who fled abuse by family members at home and is hiding out in a Texas church with her son Ivan to avoid being deported. Having already been presented with a fine of no less than $304,000 for defying deportation orders, Hilda tells Washington: “ICE comes for me even in my dreams.” When Washington then asks Ivan why he supposes some Americans don’t want other people coming into the country, he “thinks for a moment, and then says, Maybe because they never saw someone suffer. Or they just don’t know what it’s like for us.”
Washington might have delved into the centrality of undocumented labor to the US economy, and how that hunger reconciles itself to a deterrence policy that often converts the act of migration to the United States into a living hell, if not a death sentence. And while he does touch on the imperial wars in Iraq and elsewhere, a bit more reflection on the US tradition of inflicting death and destruction in the Middle East — while at the same time militarizing its border to deflect the human fallout — could have allowed for some instructive parallels with Central America.
Trivial critiques aside, The Dispossessed is an enlightening work on numerous levels: intellectual, analytical, emotional. “Empathy is not a passive act,” Washington writes. “It is listening to someone and then actively sharing in their story.” The book itself is exactly that: an act of empathy. Arnovis tells him: “When I crossed the river into the US […] I could feel it — I was less human.”
By telling Arnovis’s story — or rather, giving Arnovis the space in which to tell his own story — there is a recuperation of humanity that, simultaneously, further exposes the dehumanizing essence of a US border system predicated on fear and the reduction of poor refugees to a nebulous, menacing mob of miscreants (as with Trump’s infamous “National Emergy” [sic] of 2018, i.e., the Central American migrant caravan).
As for what needs to be done, Washington doesn’t mince words: any humane efforts will require breaking federal laws and offering sanctuary. For those observers who persist in the notion that the Trump administration’s persecution of migrants is somehow uniquely barbaric, The Dispossessed — with its extensive historical details on, inter alia, the United States’s brutal treatment of Haitian refugees and use of asylum as a political weapon against communist foes — should also serve as a wakeup call.
Belén Fernández is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin.