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'New Yorker' writer traces the current U.S. border crisis back to the Cold War

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The battle over immigration is continuing in Congress and in the presidential campaign. States in the South and in the North are trying to manage the influx of more migrants than they can deal with while there's a humanitarian crisis at the border. Migrants crossing the southern border - or trying to - used to be primarily from Mexico. Now they're primarily from Central and South America. Trump is promising that if he wins, he'll oversee the largest mass deportation in American history. My guest, Jonathan Blitzer, is the author of a new book about how today's crisis at the border connects with the U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy starting with the Cold War of the mid 1960s through the Reagan era, when the U.S. bolstered Latin American dictators in an attempt to prevent the spread of communism. He writes about the Trump administration, as well.

The book is told through the personal stories of three people and the choices they made to deal with or escape terror, corruption and economic crises in their countries and the consequences they faced. He also examines how their personal stories illustrate the history of American politics that helped create the crises in Central America. Blitzer is a staff writer at The New Yorker covering immigration. His new book is called "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." We recorded our interview yesterday.

Jonathan Blitzer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I have to say that over the years, I've done a lot of interviews about how the U.S. helped bolster dictatorships in Central and South America to prevent the spread of communism, the logic being that the authoritarian rulers were keeping back the Communists, and if they fell, Communists would take over. I've also done a lot of interviews about, you know, current immigration policy. Yours is the first book I've read, the first reporting that I remember seeing that connects the two - the support of U.S. dictatorships and the immigration crisis we're seeing now. What made you want to connect those two?

JONATHAN BLITZER: Well, a few things - the history of U.S. foreign policy and the history of U.S. immigration policy, which, of course, all revolves around domestic politics, it involves politics in the region and so on, really kind of unlocks the broader story. It not only clarifies what the reality has been for people in the region, for lawmakers in Washington and the U.S. borderlands, but it also sets up a historical parallel that's been very striking to me in the last several years, which is through the 1980s, say, you would have the U.S. supporting governments that oppose the spread of communism. And so it became very easy for these governments in the region to perpetrate all kinds of atrocities, knowing that the U.S. wasn't going to hold them to account because they were aligned on Cold War politics.

Now, the latter-day manifestation of that has been an obsession with stemming the flow of migration from the region. And so there's a similar - there's a kind of a recurrence of U.S. governments looking the other way on a range of issues, from corruption to state-perpetrated violence, because just as U.S. authorities were once easily swayed by reassurances from right-wing leaders that they would crack down on communism, now they're equally reassured that, OK, these partners are helping us combat the flow of people, and therefore, we should make whatever allowances we have to make. And so the problem kind of perpetuates itself.

GROSS: A White House official recently told you that immigration has become a Democratic issue. What did he mean by that?

BLITZER: The idea is in the U.S. now, we are obviously fighting the rise of populist authoritarianism. It's not just an American phenomenon, sadly, it's an international phenomenon. And nothing has really catalyzed that phenomenon quite like mass migration. I mean, this is an issue that the entire world is experiencing, not just in the U.S. We're in a moment of unprecedented mass migration and displacement, the likes of which we haven't seen since the Second World War. And one of the appeals that populist, authoritarians have made is that our countries are under threat, that our borders are being overrun, and the immigration issue has tended to have this outsized impact over the broader political discourse.

And so it's the kind of situation where it doesn't matter what other things an American administration might be doing domestically, the border - immigration at the border, the images of, you know, border agents seeming to be overtaken, all the rest, that completely dominates public perceptions of how the government is working and operating. And so it really has this ability, uniquely, to be a kind of powder keg in our politics.

GROSS: I think the White House official was also implying that authoritarian rulers use this to scare people into voting for them. And I'm wondering if you think that Trump falls into this category of exploiting the immigration crisis for his own good and if that's the pattern that you see in authoritarian leaders around the world right now?

BLITZER: I definitely think so. And I think Trump is not only a paradigmatic case, but I think on a scale and with a ferocity and at a volume that we've never really seen before in the modern era, he has weaponized this issue. And once he's made the kinds of claims that he's made, the sort of bottom falls out in our political discourse to some degree. I mean, you know, the only thing keeping leaders from making this very cynical appeal and not is, frankly, a sense of integrity and scruples. I mean, none of the facts align with what Donald Trump is saying about immigration, just the most obvious one being that immigrants bring crime. I mean, all of these things he says are demonstrably false.

What's complicated about it is immigration is real. The numbers of people fleeing their countries and arriving at the southern border, that's a fact. It's a fact of our world. And so, you know, it's a very easy issue to exploit. And once everyone in the world has seen someone exploit it as successfully as Donald Trump, it becomes irresistible to a certain segment of the world's political population to do the same.

GROSS: You write that for more than a century, the U.S. has devised one policy after another to keep people out of the country, and for more than a century, it has failed. Certainly recently, a lot of the policy to keep people out of the country has been deterrence. This was especially true during the Trump administration creating really harsh policies, including the separation of parents from children as a deterrence to other people who were thinking of crossing the border into the U.S. seeking asylum. And you say, like, that has totally failed. And you offer an example of that in your book.

You visited a housing complex in Mexico where people were trying to enter the U.S., and a lot of the people who you met there had already been in the U.S., hadn't gotten asylum and spent time in prison. So tell us about those people and why they were still, after being deported from the U.S., trying to get back in. After being imprisoned in the U.S., trying to get back in.

BLITZER: This was at a housing complex along the southern border of Mexico and Guatemala. And often, you have these kinds of - sort of echoes through time and space where, you know, you can best understand the dynamics of the U.S.-Mexico border by talking to people at the Mexico-Guatemala border. There are these kinds of international reverberations. And what was so striking about my conversation with this group of people was that everyone had been, you know, detained, imprisoned - some for longer than others - and deported. And all of them had horrible experiences in American immigration detention. And all of them, to a person, described feeling the immediate need as soon as they touched back down in their home country - in this particular case, it was Honduras - to make the journey again.

And what was so jarring to me about it was the kind of realization that you have a global population now that kind of fits a different model than anything I had ever thought about before, which was, you know, these people technically are Honduran, but they can't live in Honduras. The poverty was too extreme. The political corruption was too extreme. There's a history of political repression that in some individual cases had touched these people personally. So none of them thought life in Honduras was sustainable, and yet anytime they got to the U.S., they were immediately apprehended and imprisoned.

And so, you know, it didn't matter what kind of punishment was meted out at the U.S. border when there is an overwhelming desperation to emigrate. When there's an overwhelming need, the cost-benefit analysis is always going to be to flee to safety, to flee to opportunity. And it's been, you know, extremely painful to document over the years deterrence policies that sort of on paper would seem to make sense. I mean, it sort of stands to reason that the tougher you are at the border, the more people would take stock and try to adapt accordingly. But the kind of human reality is that if you have a desperate need to leave, you're going to leave. And you're going to sort things out later.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." And the crisis that he's writing about is the immigration crisis. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jonathan Blitzer, a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers immigration. "His new book is called Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis."

Why is it the story no longer about Mexican migrants trying to cross the border into the U.S., but it's more about Central and South America? What changed?

BLITZER: Around 2014 - and obviously, these things are slower-rolling phenomena. But around 2014, you started to see this shift where, you know, the typical profile of the person arriving at the U.S. southern border up to that moment was a single Mexican adult crossing to look for work. And that was an easier population for the U.S. to deal with administratively. You know, when someone comes to the border seeking protection in the form of asylum, the government by law is required to hear out their claim and to process that claim, which, of course, requires resources and attention.

And so around that inflection point in 2014, you started to see this shift where, you know, that single Mexican male crossing for work subsided somewhat and was replaced and, in fact, vastly eclipsed by unaccompanied children from Central America and families from Central America. And all of them were seeking asylum. So what was happening in Central America was endemic violence that had really reached a point where life was more or less uninhabitable in these countries. I mean, massive gang violence, which, by the way, was the result of U.S. deportation policy in the 1990s, so this is to the broader point of how U.S. foreign policy plays a role in all of this. You know, continued government failures to stem violence, all of these things building in the region.

And so, in a certain sense, you know, why 2014 in particular? You know, the deeper I got in the reporting, the clearer it became to me that, really, those were factors that were accumulating in the '80s, the '90s, the early 2000s. It was building steadily, and then it kind of screamingly announces itself at the southern border in 2014, when U.S. authorities are almost literally overnight overwhelmed by the numbers of people. Now, of course, in retrospect, the numbers of people arriving seem relatively tame. But at the moment it was, you know, a massive crisis and the U.S. government was really struggling to come up with ways of handling that kind of population that needed to be tended to because they were seeking asylum.

GROSS: Now, you said that the gangs in Central and South America that people are fleeing from, those gangs are a result of U.S. deportation policy. Can you connect the dots for us?

BLITZER: Yeah. So the story - I mean, it's kind of quite an amazing thing to think about now, especially when during the Trump years, you know, we heard almost daily about the Salvadoran street gang MS-13. That gang started on the streets of Los Angeles. The dates sort of are variable, but, you know, some people date the kind of rise of MS-13 as we know it today more or less to the mid- to late '80s. Basically, what had happened was this - in the 1980s, there was a civil war in El Salvador that went from, basically, 1980 to 1992. And it displaced a huge portion of the Salvadoran population. You know, basically a fifth of El Salvador fled to the United States.

So you had, you know, each - you know, every several months you had hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans kind of washing into American cities. And as they did, they were brutalized by a pretty vicious inner city racial hierarchy, where as the newcomers, they were, you know, victims of crime, of beatings, of killings. And so over time, what you started to see in Los Angeles, in South Los Angeles at the time, was some of these Salvadoran new arrivals forming groups of their own in self-defense.

Now, obviously, there was kind of a complicated and rich gang landscape in California at that time. And so they kind of linked up with different elements of the population and over time started to commit crimes in their own right. This is how gangs like MS-13 formed. But over time, as the U.S. government started to crack down on crime - and remember, the 1990s were all about politically proving federal toughness on crime. So you had the war on crime in inner cities across America converging with a political imperative to show toughness on immigration and to link the two.

And the U.S. started to deport large numbers of these gang members to El Salvador without really telling El Salvador who it was that they were sending back. Now, El Salvador, of course, was just reeling from over 12 years of civil war. Seventy-five thousand people had just been killed. The country was in, you know, shambles. And so, in relatively short order, these criminal elements started to consolidate their power in post-civil war El Salvador, gain in strength and start to really metastasize throughout the region. And that's the gang threat that we've come to see now.

GROSS: So in other words, the people who came to the U.S. and had no opportunities and became gang leaders and were then imprisoned and then deported, go back to El Salvador. And the life they know at this point is a criminal gang kind of life. And do gang leaders become part of the government or part of the, like, massive corruption?

BLITZER: What we see most particularly with the gang situation in places like El Salvador and Honduras is that it's almost like a parallel state. You know, the governments were weak or corrupt and, you know, didn't have effective responses to rising crime. And so you had kind of - what emerged was a parallel state where, you know, the rule on the street was wrought by gangs. And, you know, the type of crime they engaged in. I mean, a lot of it was violent, homicidal stuff, but a lot of it also was less drug dealing early on than extortion. And so, you know, demanding taxes from local businesses. So if you ran a local store, you'd have to kick a certain amount of the money you made to the local gang.

GROSS: Standard American organized crime.

BLITZER: Exactly, exactly. And it really bled dry the economy. I mean, you know, tens of millions of dollars over the years were tied up in extortion rackets. And so, you know, as these - as the power of these gangs really hardened and became more entrenched in Central American society, governments made allowances for them. I mean, it got to a point where - you know, the situation in El Salvador has changed pretty drastically in recent years. But, you know, you would have Salvadoran governments secretly negotiating with these gang members around election time to try to persuade them to lower the homicide rate during the election season as a way of, obviously, boosting the political prospects of the ruling party. And so you had all of these kinds of unsavory alliances, but the gangs really were a kind of independent operator.

And to come back to the question also of, you know, what it meant for people showing up at the southern border, it also scrambled the equation a little bit in terms of how American immigration law could deal with the humanitarian emergency. So asylum, the principle of asylum, which was first enshrined in 1980 in U.S. law and was a part of international law for longer, defined very specific forms of persecution that triggered eligibility for asylum, identity based persecution. And typically that had more to do with the predations of a government, of the state.

GROSS: What you're describing also connects to asylum law. Asylum law was written in 1980? And what was it written to address then that isn't quite working now?

BLITZER: Well, there were a few things in the writing of - in the codifying of asylum law in America that kind of didn't line up with the reality at the border and beyond. The first is this - the idea of asylum was predicated on very specific forms of persecution. So if someone were the victim of particular kinds of identity based persecution, usually perpetrated by the state, they typically had a good shot of earning legal protection in the form of asylum. What that definition didn't immediately account for was something like the phenomenon of these gangs, which isn't the state as such, and which obviously submerges a country in daily violence, but doesn't map very neatly onto identity based persecution.

So maybe someone has been threatened. They've had family members killed or hunted down because one of them had insulted a local gang leader or had refused to pay a tax on their business, and the gang has such a national reach in the country that there was no easy way to escape the predations of this particular gang. That's horrific and is quite literally life-threatening for someone. It would seem very obvious that that kind of person would qualify for asylum. But it's not written as cleanly into the statute that basically would have, you know, spelled out more specific forms of persecution that would make them eligible for protection.

So that was an immediate complication. Another was that asylum doesn't - asylum deals with people who arrive at the southern border seeking protection, which means that it's essentially an unpredictable population of people who show up. The 1980 Refugee Act, which codified asylum law, was focused more specifically on a population of refugees who the U.S. could bring into the country, could vet in their home countries or in other countries that they had fled to, and controlled their arrival in the U.S.

GROSS: Like Russia, like dissidents in Russia.

BLITZER: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: And Jews from Russia.

BLITZER: Exactly, exactly. So, you know, there were populations that - you know, in the past, there wasn't a kind of formal system for how the U.S. dealt with broad populations like that. And so the idea of the 1980 Refugee Act was to say, OK, we are going to come up with a set of humanitarian criteria for protections that people deserved, and we are going to extend that protection to people abroad and bring them to the U.S. Administratively, asylum was much more complicated because it was a function of who showed up at the border. And so what the framers of the 1980 act couldn't have accounted for, and what indeed they did not account for, was that those numbers over time would soar and that asylum as such would be slow to keep up with that pace of mass arrivals.

GROSS: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers immigration. His new book is called "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC RIBOT'S "DELANCEY WALTZ")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Jonathan Blitzer, author of the new book "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." The crisis is the immigration crisis. He covers immigration for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. His new book is about how the current immigration crisis in the U.S. and at the southern border is connected with American foreign policy dating back to the Cold War of the mid-'60s through the Reagan administration. He also writes about more recent immigration issues, including what happened during the Trump administration.

Your book tells the stories of three people who are in great danger in Central American countries. And through those stories, you tell the larger story of how American policy has affected the countries that they're fleeing from, and also, you tell the story of how they dealt with the crises. So the first story that you tell is the story of Juan Romagoza. Why did you choose his story? In other words, what I'm asking you is what were you hoping his story would illustrate in terms of the larger story of the immigration crisis?

BLITZER: You know, Juan fled El Salvador in the early 1980s. He had been brutalized and tortured by the National Guard at the time. He was a doctor by training, was tortured so badly that he couldn't continue to perform surgeries, and that was the whole idea of the torture that he was subjected to, that he would - it would - it was meant to incapacitate him. He fled, lived in Mexico for a few years while he physically recuperated, during that time helped Guatemalan refugees fleeing the civil war in Guatemala travel through Mexico to reach the United States. Juan eventually makes it to the U.S., gets involved with the sanctuary movement, first in California, then in Washington, D.C., and over time becomes a major public health kind of leader of the community in Washington, D.C., at a storied medical clinic called La Clinica, catering to primarily undocumented Central Americans living in Washington.

So he's - you know, he kind of is in every place you would want someone to be in order to understand the different strands of this story and winds up actually testifying in a U.S. federal court in the early 2000s, in a human rights case involving two war criminals, Salvadoran generals who had fled to the United States, were relocated by the CIA and the State Department in the U.S. and who eventually were found guilty of committing human rights violations and in 2015 were deported. And Juan was the main plaintiff in that case. So he's really kind of - this whole arc of history is something he's lived personally.

GROSS: You know, when I was reading the part of your book about his story and the torture that he endured, it was just sickening. And I've read about many other cases of torture in Central and South America over the years because that has been very well reported on. But to read it again, like, I don't even want to describe what it was because it's really just that sickening and upsetting, and it's hard to imagine him surviving it. And again, this was during a period when we were - when the American government was supporting El Salvador, right?

BLITZER: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: So we were complicit in that torture.

BLITZER: And, you know, something that Juan...

GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong in saying that.

BLITZER: No, I think that that's fair to say. I think that that's fair to say. You know, the complicity was indirect. I mean, we were, you know, funding...

GROSS: We weren't in the room. Yeah.

BLITZER: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, the U.S. government was funding the Salvadoran military. It knew about this and many other abuses being perpetrated by the military. It looked the other way. So, you know, complicity, I think, is the word.

GROSS: So where is he living now, and what is he doing?

BLITZER: Juan is now retired and living back in El Salvador. And so he eventually - he was one of the few Salvadorans to have applied for asylum in the mid-'80s and actually got it. And so he has U.S. citizenship but has always dreamed, like so many immigrants before him, of returning to his home country and eventually around 2008, because of some health issues that he had, he wanted to return home, and he's been living there ever since. He actually served in the Salvadoran government for a few years after his return to the country, working in the health ministry, which is the dream he had always had that got interrupted by the civil war. And he has since retired and is in El Salvador.

GROSS: So let's talk about what's happening now. And I should say we were recording this on Monday. Our listeners are hearing this on Tuesday, and we don't know what will have happened in between Monday morning and Tuesday. But right now there's a bill before the Senate, a bipartisan deal on immigration. Trump has been trying to convince Republicans that they shouldn't sign this deal, even though Republicans got a lot of what they're asking for in this deal. And, you know, what people are saying is that Trump doesn't want the Republicans to sign this deal because it would diminish the ability of Trump to use immigration as an issue in the election because if the Biden presidency helped move the ball forward on immigration, then Trump can't demonize Biden. What do you know about what happened behind the scenes with this? Do you have any insight?

BLITZER: Yeah, I mean, I think what's so unique about this moment in immigration politics is actually the Democratic role in all of it. I mean, the Republican side, while it is the force that's mainly driving the conversation, is something that we've more or less known. Trump is going to be Trump. Republicans are going to sort of cow before him. But that's sort of something that we more or less have seen before in some fashion.

What's interesting now is where Democrats stand and what they're willing to do. I think there is a feeling that we haven't seen before among Democrats of real urgency in needing to appear tougher on the border, and one of the turning points that led to this kind of about-face for Democrats has been what we've seen in blue cities across the country - in New York, in Chicago, in Washington, D.C., in Denver - where the governor of Texas has bussed newly arrived migrants to these cities without having coordinated with local authorities ahead of time, and it's overwhelmed local officials. It's cost a huge amount of money. It's created chaos.

And I think there is a feeling in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party right now that we have to reach a deal now. There needs to be an effort made by this White House and by leadership in the Senate to neutralize this issue, because it's a real liability for the president in an election year. And so it's led Democrats to be more willing than they've been in recent memory to make changes to the asylum system. And that's - you know, these negotiations have been playing out for the last month and a half, and I think it seems like this week is going to be a week where we actually see the fruits of all of this backroom labor, where there are actually are going to be terms that we can see and analyze and come to understand better.

GROSS: Attached to this immigration bill is, you know, aid to Israel and Ukraine. So if the bill doesn't pass, Israel and Ukraine don't get the aid. Trump has always tried to present himself as being pro-Israel. But by opposing this bipartisan deal, he's stopping aid to Israel.

BLITZER: Yeah. There's - I mean, there's a pretty ugly contradiction here for Republicans. And Trump's involvement in trying to scuttle these talks really brings it even more clearly to the surface. I mean, I also think what's striking is there isn't consensus among congressional Republicans on the issue of Ukraine aid. There has been division inside the Republican conference on that issue. Where there is kind of uniformity among Republicans is on the immigration issue, and we've seen that tighten in recent months. I mean, this has obviously been an incredibly chaotic Republican Congress. They can't get their act together. They've obviously had this whole drama with ousting their own speaker, then struggling to refill the vacancy that they created. The one issue that I think every member of the Republican Party can kind of rally around and plans to rally around is immigration. And so it's an opportunity for them, in a way, to play off their division on the Ukraine question and make it seem like this is all animated by concern over immigration.

And now we're seeing very clearly - and what's so striking about the current moment is it actually looks like this bipartisan group of senators is coming very close to the terms of a deal. Whether that deal can pass the Senate is an open question. The numbers look pretty grim in that regard. But what's obvious is that, you know, Republican House leadership has said, following Trump's lead, this deal is dead on arrival here. And so, you know, they're playing up this issue to the best of their abilities. They're coordinating their stance on that negotiation also with an attack on Biden's secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who they are trying to impeach. I mean, it's all political theater, and it's going to be interesting to see if Democrats try to flip the script on Republicans right now.

GROSS: You know, Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate, says that Republicans are in a quandary because of Trump's opposition. If Republicans, like, support immigration reform and got a lot of what they wanted in this bill, why does it need to be a quandary? Why are Republicans so afraid of Trump, who is standing so many - he has so many indictments against him now. He just lost another case to E. Jean Carroll. Like, I don't really understand why they're so afraid of him, so afraid to cross him.

BLITZER: You know, one administration official kind of mused to me almost wistfully the other day that, you know, if only this Senate deal had taken wing before, you know, New Hampshire, before Iowa, maybe there was a chance that some Republicans who are a little bit fainthearted on Trump would kind of exhibit some independence of mind. I mean, I think, you know, the party is rallying around its presumptive nominee. He has shown them the utility of weaponizing immigration for political gain. And I think in some ways, that's - you know, that's a history that comes through in the book, by the way - is that, you know, there's a moment in time when a genuine policy conundrum collides with kind of partisan gamesmanship on the issue.

And my feeling is that that begins to really become clear around 2014, and shortly after, Trump is on the scene and is basically the first mainstream presidential candidate in modern memory to run specifically on immigration. Normally, the issue is so divisive and fractious, even among each of the respective parties in this country, that candidates have shied away from it. And this is a moment in which Trump has shown the Republicans that there's - you know, there's utility - there's electoral utility in drumming this issue up night and day.

GROSS: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers immigration. His new book is called "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET'S "IMMACULATE HEART 2")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Jonathan Blitzer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he covers immigration. He's been writing about immigration for years. His new book is called "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." And, of course, the crisis he's writing about is the immigration crisis.

What is Trump promising to do about immigration if he is reelected?

BLITZER: You know, Trump - it's such a strange thing. For people who cover immigration - I know I'm speaking for a broad community of people out here - it's so strange to see Trump held up as this kind of paragon of, you know, order at the border because, in fact, the border was as chaotic as it's ever been under Trump. You know, in 2018, when the Trump administration instituted its notorious family separation policy, obviously, everyone was horrified by the human suffering that resulted. But in the next year, the numbers reached unprecedented levels of people at the southern border, which goes back to the earlier part of our conversation - that, you know, deterrence can only do so much. I mean, it effectively tortures people at the border who have no alternative but to try to come to the United States.

So it's unclear, in a concrete sense, what Trump would do again. I think, you know, there were a few policies that he put into place that I think were widely regarded as, you know, humanitarian disasters. One of them was called Remain in Mexico, where the U.S. basically shunted asylum seekers into northern Mexico and had them wait indefinitely as their cases proceeded slowly in U.S. immigration courts. And, of course, no protections were made. No planning was done to ensure that these people were safe and housed and shielded from criminal elements in northern Mexico. So it was really a horrible situation that affected close to 70,000 people. I'm sure that's something that we would see again in a Trump administration.

I think the Trump administration - a Trump administration fantasizes about detaining anyone and everyone who crosses the border. This is a pipe dream. This is not a serious response to any of the policy questions at the southern border because there just simply aren't the resources to detain everyone. So, you know, listeners should be extraordinarily skeptical anytime they hear Republicans or anyone, for that matter, say that the U.S. can just detain everyone or should be detaining more people. That actually happens to be one of the main charges against Biden's Homeland security secretary right now, that he's refused to detain more people, which is, I mean, a logical impossibility under the circumstances.

But I think a second Trump term on immigration would be quite scary. I think some of his key advisers, like Stephen Miller, have really figured out how to run the system into the ground. You would see major restrictions on legal immigration. You would see, probably, very, very painful detention policies. You would certainly see the suspension of asylum as we know it. You would see the demise of the refugee system as we know it. We've experienced some of this before, and I think we would just see it on steroids a second time.

GROSS: What has the Biden administration done to undo some of the Trump immigration policies?

BLITZER: So it's interesting. The Biden administration has gotten hit hard from all sides for being almost lethargic on immigration policy. But actually, the Biden administration has been very, very active on the immigration front. It's actually implemented more immigration actions than Trump did in a shorter period of time. They've done a few kind of key things. First of all, they've stood back up the legal immigration system. I mean, this is the thing that falls out of the conversation all too often because we're always talking about the border. But something that had happened during the Trump years that COVID really threw into overdrive was that legal immigration to the U.S. dropped off.

And so the Biden administration has taken great pains to increase legal immigration - green cards, non-immigrant visas, you know, family reunification visas, those sorts of things. Significant, that's a significant thing. They've also really restored key aspects of the refugee system. And so, you know, after years of the Trump administration deliberately sabotaging the refugee system, the U.S. is finally resettling refugees on a pace and at a scale that occurred before Trump. So these things they've done, and they've tried to make a number of, you know, more technical, rules-based changes to try to undo some of the abuses of the Trump years.

What's been the most complicated for Biden has been figuring out a way forward at the border and with the asylum system, because one of the things that Trump essentially did was he put the problem kind of out of sight, out of mind. First he shunted asylum-seekers into northern Mexico and kind of left them there. That was the Remain in Mexico policy. Then during COVID, he used this obscure public health authority called Title 42 to suspend asylum altogether at the border. Of course, that didn't do anything to change the reality at the southern border in terms of the large number of people who are continuing to come to the U.S. desperate for entry and for relief and for protection. And in some ways, what Trump did was exacerbate that chaos, because a policy like that expulsion policy, Title 42, led people to just cross more times because there was nothing to lose to at least try again, because all that was happening was they were getting expelled in the first case.

And so Biden inherits this broken system and, you know, has this immediate problem. So the Biden administration wound down the Remain in Mexico policy. And as it was winding it down, a federal court sued by a bunch of state - Republican state attorneys general stopped the Biden administration. So that kind of got frozen in place. The Biden administration kept that Title 42 policy for a relatively long time, finally suspended it in the spring of 2023. And now the numbers, which were already high and were predictably high, are continuing to present a problem for them. And so, you know, the Biden administration has tried to undo certain aspects of the Trump policies. And it's just - it's been incredibly complicated.

GROSS: We need to take another break here but we'll pick up where we left off. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer. He's the author of a new book about the immigration crisis called "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Jonathan Blitzer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he covers immigration. He's been writing about immigration for years. His new book is called "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." And, of course, the crisis he's writing about is the immigration crisis.

There's an ongoing dispute now between the Biden administration and Texas Governor Greg Abbott about the legality of the concertina wire, the razor wire that the Abbott administration erected as a barrier between Texas and the Mexican border. And also there're the buoys that the Abbott administration installed on the banks of the Rio Grande River. There was a new Supreme Court ruling on the razor wire. Can you describe that ruling?

BLITZER: Basically, the governor of Texas has flouted long-standing federal law that says that the federal government and not the states has kind of primary responsibility over immigration enforcement. And so there have been a number of things that Texas has done in kind of gradually intensifying ways since 2021. And it's now kind of culminated most recently in this standoff over concertina wire that the state of Texas has erected as a way of forcing Border Patrol agents to have to cut through the wire to apprehend migrants who get caught in it. And so it's essentially an elaborate and truly kind of cruel and callous photo-op that the governor of Texas is trying to create to make it look like Border Patrol agents are, you know, helping migrants get into the country rather than arresting them. And so, you know, the fact that the state of Texas is quite literally standing in the way of federal agents enforcing immigration law at the border - and, by the way, federal agents who are, you know, well known for being fairly tough in the execution of their job; we're talking about Border Patrol agents - it's led to a legal crisis, and there is a real standoff here. I don't know how this plays out.

GROSS: Have you heard any really good suggestions for immigration reform? And do you have any ideas of your own that you think would be good reforms 'cause the system really is a mess? We can't depend on Congress to fix it 'cause now that they have a bipartisan agreement, they still might not pass it. And, you know, at the same time, like, the U.S. can't accommodate everyone who wants to come here from around the world, so there has to be a policy. Any suggestions that you've heard or of your own?

BLITZER: You know, I - it's just such - it's such a conundrum that haunts anyone and everyone who works in this space, whether it's journalistic or legal. You know, it's hard to give up on the fact that Congress really has to do something. I mean, it's hard to come up with any solution that doesn't, in some fashion, run through Congress. I mean, it should be said that the deal that's stuck right now in the Senate is a very narrow deal. I mean, we're not talking about comprehensive immigration reform. In 2013, the Senate passed in bipartisan fashion, comprehensive immigration reform. It was commonsensical. It was middle of the road. It had things that both parties could agree on. And it died in the House because Republicans refused to bring it up for a vote. And so, you know, I don't mean to just restate the question, but it's almost impossible to imagine any solution that could exist without Congress taking some basic action.

And then when you start to drill down and look at individual things, you have Republican state leaders who say, look, we have job shortages in our states. We need more people to come here to work legally. There is actually - if you somehow clear out the partisan rancor, there are basic forms of agreement on, for example, temporary worker visas. I mean, those numbers are frozen in place from many years ago. And so, you know, you have visas that we should be expanding access to that would allow people to come to the U.S. temporarily and then return home, which would actually have downstream positive effects, because people would be able to bring money back to their communities, and that over time would potentially limit the need for them to continue to emigrate. These are things that are really within reach. The problem always is the politics. The politics just stand in the way of everything.

And, you know, on the asylum issue specifically, you know, I think the real impasse that we're at is there is a structural problem that everyone has to acknowledge, which is if you're dealing with asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border, it's too late. It's too complicated to deal with the volume of people that we're seeing now. And so there has to be some systematic effort made to begin to process people farther from the U.S. border. Whether it's at regional processing centers - what the Biden administration is trying to do - or in their home countries, there has to be some way of managing people and administering this broader asylum process or legal application process before people make the trip to the southern border.

The problem with that is it's going to take a few years. This is just a basic fact of government administration and international cooperation. And so there has to be some kind of political fix in the meantime that neutralizes the issue long enough for people acting in good faith to do what experts recognize as necessary, which is, you know, expand access to legal immigration and to try to think in more international terms about how to open up this process so as to reduce chaos at the border itself.

GROSS: Well, Jonathan Blitzer, thank you so much for joining us again on FRESH AIR. And thank you for your reporting and your book. I really appreciate you being with us.

BLITZER: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the new book, "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis." We recorded our interview yesterday.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Emma Stone. She's nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in "Poor Things," which is also nominated for best picture and best director. Her co-star Mark Ruffalo is also nominated. Stone won an Oscar for her performance in "La La Land" and was nominated for "Birdman" and "The Favourite." I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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