Arnovis, the immigrant at the heart of John Washington’s new non-fiction book, The Dispossessed, stumbles into his own need for flight. At a soccer game, he accidentally clips another man in the jaw with his elbow. The man’s brother is in the local gang, and Arnovis tries three times to flee El Salvador after its members threaten him. The last time, he brings his 6-year-old daughter, Meybelín, who is detained with him near the U.S-Mexico border. But Border Patrol agents take her away. When Arnovis asks for her days later, a guard in his detention center says, “I didn’t know you had a daughter.” They tell him that they have no record of her.
Arnovis and his daughter are eventually reunited, but The Dispossessed is not obsessed with only the tragedy of their time apart, or with the thousands of other families the US government has separated. Instead it looks far more deeply at the strategies used to force people like Arnovis back to the countries from which they fled. Washington brings together the words of anthropologists, journalists, philosophers, and novelists who have written about displacement and belonging to consider why people seeking safety are often point-blank denied.
In the vein of work by writers such as Svetlana Alexievich and Valeria Luiselli, The Dispossessed gives interviewees space to tell their stories, switching between feature-style reporting, essay, and oral history. Washington is an acclaimed translator of recent works on Latin America by authors such as Anabel Hernández, Óscar Martínez, and Alberto Arce. Washington’s own book—his first as a journalist—is acrobatic in the way it brings together his reporting from the US, Mexico, and Central America. His beautiful telling of history helped me understand the recent winnowing of asylum protections in the US and in other countries.
I’ve cherished Washington’s reporting during the years I’ve spent in Mexico writing about immigration. Soon after he moved to New York, he took the time to answer my questions over the phone. He mentioned how the tradition of offering sanctuary appears in Greek plays, early Islamic teachings, and Middle Age church customs. But, he explained, that sort of generosity has often been withdrawn in periods when many people are on the move. If you think you’ve read far too much about asylum being dismantled, take some time for this book. It’ll give you a fresh perspective.
I. CONTENDING FACTORS AT PLAY
THE BELIEVER: Why was it important to you to go so far back in looking at the origin of asylum?
JOHN WASHINGTON: As far back in human history as you can go, there’s some practice of offering hospitality to strangers. Looking at the history of asylum, you get to the history of democracy, the origin of ethical systems, and even poetry and narrative. There’s evidence that the concept of habeus corpus—the right to appeal to a judge when you’re unlawfully arrested—developed out of church sanctuary practices. You saw the institutionalization of asylum rising up in ancient Greece at the same time as you saw the emergence of the principle of democracy. I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from this, but in The Suppliants, an ancient Greek play written by Aeschylus, we see the first ever mention of democracy. There might be something in the origin of democracy that relates to asylum: you know you’re sharing a roof, and you’re willing to share not only with the people that you’re ruling with, but also with the fleeing stranger. This idea of a stranger coming to town is one of the most elemental stories told by humans, and it’s really a question of asylum. These strangers coming in, are they a threat? Do we welcome them? Do we let them into our home or not?
BLVR: You tell us at the beginning of The Dispossessed that asylum, in the last century, has reinforced the idea that the nation must exist to offer protection. When did that become the norm?
JW: In order for someone to win asylum they have to be fleeing a particular state, or be actors who are overlooked by the state, so I think of it as an escape valve. But it’s pretty important to underline that that’s not what asylum used to be. Asylum came out of this millennia-old concept of protecting the neighbor, or offering refuge to the weary traveler. It wasn’t until nation-states rose up that it became the state, and only a state, that could offer such protection, that could extend rights to an individual. The concept of asylum had been used by the Holy Roman Empire, the Holy Christian church, and later empires, but in the twentieth century, when there were masses of people moving, that’s when nation-states start using asylum law not just to offer protection but also as a political tool, favoring people escaping enemies and rejecting protections to those fleeing allies. There needed to be some way to deal with people. One way was offering protection, another was trying to stop them.
BLVR: When we’re looking at the current restrictions on asylum in the US, do you think of them as novel? Or do you think of banning certain people as a fundamental part of the law?
JW: There has always been these contending factors at play, this idea that you would protect people, but only selectively. The US offered refuge to a few hundred thousand people fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos at the tail end of the Vietnam War. But at the same time, it was trying to limit the number of people coming from other countries. Cubans were taken in with open arms in the ’80s and ’90s, and to a degree after that as well, while Haitians were summarily blocked, deported, put in camps, and sent to Guantanamo Bay. That selectiveness exists even in international laws that are the basis for current protections. The early iterations of refugee accords, from the League of Nations in the 1920s, to the 1951 Refugee Convention, were circumscribed. You could not get asylum if you were living anywhere else except Europe, so there were millions of people who were displaced in North Africa and Asia during WWII, and none of them could apply.
BLVR: The current efforts to limit asylum seek to be two-fold: physically prevent people from reaching the US to make their case before a judge, which as you point out has a long tradition, and change the definition of asylum law in the US, so that it’s harder to win your case.
JW: There’s a redefining of who can qualify for asylum. We see the Mexican government armed to stop Central Americans and other immigrants. The current US administration is making people who are seeking asylum stay in deadly, squalid detention centers, or they’re pushing them back across the river and making them wait in violent border cities where they’re subject to other forms of violence. They’re flown to Guatemala, because of an agreement that says that they can seek asylum there instead of in the US. Right now, there are people being turned back at the border because of the pandemic. There’s an order that allows Border Patrol to expel them, so nobody can get asylum now, even though there’s nothing in asylum law, in international law, that says there are exceptions based on the whims of a xenophobic president.
BLVR: Talk me through the early days of your conversations with Arnovis. How did you end up in El Salvador? You mention that he appeared in other news stories, but that you wanted to report on the long-term consequences of family separation for people who didn’t get to stay in the US.
JW: I came to Arnovis after he had become, temporarily, one of the faces of the family separation crisis. Sarah Kinosian at The Guardian and Joshua Partlow at The Washington Post wrote about him. I texted him about three weeks later, and I said I’d like to talk. The first story I did with him was for The Nation. It was an oral-testimony-style piece. I ended up staying with the family. I slept in a hammock in their kitchen or on a rope-knot bed in a little shack that Arnovis built. I got to know Meybelín. I helped Arnovis lug bricks to build his sister’s home. I tried to talk to all the family members, distant relatives, the neighbors, the mayor of the town, to get to know the place. The family would talk to me about intimate things, and not all of them got included in the book, but I felt that just spending time and not being in a hurry was extremely important for understanding them and what they were going through.
BLVR: There’s this false ending to a lot of the reporting that’s done on asylum, because when someone crosses the border or is deported, it’s often the end of the story. When you’re writing about Arnovis’s attempts to leave after deportation, you seem to suggest that’s a simplified narrative.
JW: He tried three times. He was deported from Mexico and then tried twice to get to the US, but the third time, with his daughter, they got separated. The first time he left, his family had to just pull together as much money as they could. The second time, they sold a family goat, and again raised as much money as they could. The third time, his brother took out a $6,000 loan, which for them was catastrophic. His daughter is still dealing with serious trauma, and he doesn’t want to leave her again. His whole family is so concerned. She’s changed. She still has, you know, fine moments, but they know that whatever happened to her was so, so bad.
BLVR: Do they know where Meybelín was after she was separated from her father?
JW: She was transferred a couple of times, she was put on two flights, she was moved from one place in Texas to another facility, and then finally transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility in Phoenix. She had a couple friends there, but she had no idea where her dad was. He didn’t know where she was for thirty days. Psychologists talk about children being separated from their parents being doubly traumatizing, because, for children, the primary way they find comfort after trauma is from their parent. And when they don’t have that person as their primary consoler, they’re left in an abyss of trauma.
II. PERMISSION TO TELL THE TRUTH
BLVR: Parts of the book are told like oral histories. You’re not putting what someone is saying into quotes, but you fill the page with their speech as they reconstruct what happened to them. And you don’t interrupt. How did that play into the format of the book?
JW: I have this series at The Nation called “Migrant Voices,” and I’m increasingly excited about this form, oral testimony. Our memories capture a truth that I think sometimes historical fact cannot. When you cede page space to a person you’re giving them the permission to tell the truth of their lived experience, and when you’re doing your own reporting or giving historical context on the next page, you’re adhering to the factual truth. There’s room for both in a book, but you have to fact-check. I tried to corroborate what Arnovis was telling me. He told me about the height of a wall that he had climbed over, which became the first scene of the book. He first said the wall was twenty feet high, and I thought, there’s no way. But it’s not wrong that Arnovis remembered that the wall was twenty feet tall. It maybe gets at something more relevant to an asylum claim than getting that exact number down. But I still looked for photo evidence. I talked to other people. We talked about some things like that two, three, four, five, six times.
BLVR: How do you navigate your ethical responsibilities as a journalist when telling the stories of people who have been mistreated by the government, if you know that officials who are trying to dissuade migrants might actually want them to hear about the pain they could face?
JW: These stories are so crucial, and we have to let people make their own decisions. When you’re really trying to tell someone’s story in a long-form article or in a book, the subject can’t just be willing; he has to be wanting to tell the story. I tried to convince Arnovis not to use his name, or to even cut back on some of the personal details, but he wanted to. There are a lot of other potential characters I talked to, but some told me they didn’t want to go into details, so they wouldn’t have been able to carry a book. I respect that. I think we have to respect that.
BLVR: I do feel like it’s particularly powerful when people tell you that what they’ve gone through is too hard to describe, and they just don’t have the language for it. It’s untellable.
JW: Yeah, I think of Meybelín. I spent a lot of time with her. We played tic-tac-toe together, we read together, we played soccer, and she was often around her dad during our conversations. Only one time did I actually try to talk to her about what happened to her, and that was with Arnovis’s permission. He wanted her to talk to another adult. I tried to ask her about it with much trepidation, and she couldn’t speak. She just could not. She clammed up and started crying almost immediately, and that was all. That was all I heard from her on that.
III. MODERN-DAY ENEMIES OF MANKIND
BLVR: It seems like the conversations around asylum now often circle around the question of obligation. The question is no longer, “What should the government be doing?” so much as, “Has the government reneged on its signed promises?” How did it get to this point?
JW: There are a number of people who actually talk about allowing more migration as a form of reparations, especially for some of the places that governments have had such a heavy hand in destabilizing. The term they use is “particularly migrant,” someone who is going to a receiving country that has caused them to flee, like Congolese people going to Belgium, or Central Americans going to the United States. There’s examples all across the world of countries, or former empires, or colonizers that destabilize entire regions, and people then going to the land of their oppressors. I think obligation is a fine way of looking at that.
BLVR: What are the ways you saw US intervention in Central America directly affected Arnovis’s life or those of other people you interviewed?
JW: Many people are familiar with the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, and how they started in the United States, before spreading to Central America. But there’s so much else going on. I recently read Nina Lakhani’s “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?” and she points to what development banks, which are backed by the US, have done to promote the exploitation of workers in Central America. The US has a hand in energy projects, the destruction of rivers and forests, global climate change, and that is having an effect on migration. Unless we are familiar with and understand the systems that are driving people to flee, then we’re not going to be able to do anyone a service. Offering refuge is crucial, but lots of people don’t want to need it in the first place. Most people I speak with lament having to have fled their homes.
BLVR: I remember how you talk about the etymology of asylum, and how it’s thought to be “freedom from pillaging” or “freedom from piracy” in the original Greek. In a current context, in which it’s not so clear who that pirate actor is, do you think that definition is still relevant?
JW: You know, the legal maritime definition of pirates first came about in the 18th or 19th century, as hostis humani generis, meaning “enemies of mankind” in Latin. They were seen as the absolute worst, the scourge of humanity, and that isn’t how we see, say, transnational capitalism today, but that is what people are fleeing. That is what people are seeking asylum from in many instances, and I think that should tell us something, that maybe these transnational capitalist companies are not only modern-day pirates, but modern-day enemies of mankind.
BLVR: It seems particularly backwards that the country that might have contributed to systems that caused people to flee would be responsible for their safe-keeping. Do you think that, even after their separation in the US, Arnovis and his family will still try to leave home?
JW: Yeah, I do. They are. It’s something they openly talk about. They have a couple family members already in the US, and since Arnovis’s last attempt, one of his young nieces has already migrated. The family struggles to get enough food on the table right now, so you see how an asylum claim, especially a denied claim, can spark more migration. The family doesn’t have any money. The family doesn’t have any job opportunities. Women in their area almost cannot find paid work. In El Salvador, the murder rate has gone down in the last year, but not quite in Usulután where they’re from, and things could backslide.
IV. ONE PERSON IN A SACRED GROVE
BLVR: I’ve been thinking how you say politicians claim immigrants are trying to enter countries through “loopholes,” even if they are not escaping from danger. But you say this argument has always been disingenuous, if people in refugee camps have taken actions such as sewing their lips shut, to protest the amount of time they’ve had to wait just to have their experiences be heard.
JW: The other example I mention at the end of the book is people burning off their fingertips. We associate fingerprints so clearly with the idea of identity, and people are forced to mutilate their bodies, burn away one of the most clear representations of their identity, and for what? They go through four months on the road, going hungry, stuffing themselves in the back of a truck, dealing with violent criminal organizations, sleeping in the desert, waiting to cross the river, taking their daughter on such a journey. It’s terrifying. Right now, people are setting out on a dinghy across the Mediterranean, knowing that thousands of people before them have drowned.
BLVR: You’ve written, in news stories, about the idea that countries should have open borders, to end the conception of the border as a place of restriction, because asylum is not adequate for the current circumstances. Do you think there’s room for that discussion in government?
JW: Asylum law isn’t a solution at all; it’s a stop-gap measure. Until we address the global climate crisis, until we remedy what that would mean, until we remedy the gross inequalities that are forcing millions of people into extreme poverty or hunger, there will be a need for asylum to give them some sort of reprieve, but asylum isn’t going to solve those underlying issues. I think we do need to talk about expanding our definition. Two examples would be for economic terrorism and climate change. But what we should really do is rewrite the whole thing. Asylees, asylum-seekers, and refugees should be the framers. The European states who wrote the original 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol had very much their own interests in mind. We need to give the people that are most in need right now the primacy in making these decisions.
BLVR: What stops governments from leaving the decision of who should be entering the country to actual immigrants? What’s standing in the way of that kind of radical change?
JW: Fear. It’s a misguided fear against all immigrants. I think of Oedipus at Colonus, the Sophocles play. The Athenian elders are deciding whether to let him find sanctuary in their grove, and they ask him, what are you fleeing? And I think his response might have been, what do you fear? Why are you scared of me? What does one person in a sacred grove represent to you? How is that potentially a threat to your city-state? The idea, in the play, is that our own fear is revealing. The United States used to take in and resettle the most refugees, but by no means does so anymore. Much smaller countries have been able to take in far more, and it isn’t tanking their economies. But people are scared of losing their racial identity, they’re scared of the other—a non-white other—and they are suffering economically because of other factors unrelated to immigration. The problems really are separate from migrants or refugees, but as we see with Brexit and the rise of Trump, that’s how politicians seek to harness fear.
BLVR: There’s a particular kind of fear that I think Arnovis describes, because he knows the gang could kill him at any time. But he’s not in hiding now. How did he explain that kind of fear?
JW: There’s a need for humans to move on, to a degree, and a need to block things out as best as they can. He has a choice, stay and risk being found and killed, or leave and risk being killed along the way. And even if he made it he’d still face long-term detention. And that impossible choice is not even factoring in his daughter. He really didn’t want to take his daughter through that again, nor did he want to leave her. He tried three times, and they both suffered horribly because of that decision. So for now, he’s going to stay. He’s working for a neighboring ranch that he originally worked for, where the same gang members who threatened him found him a second time. He tries to keep his head low. He got a raise up to $9 a day.
BLVR: Most immigrants to the US get the ability to remain in the country through other legal pathways. Why spend so much time talking about asylum?
JW: Asylum, for me, is sort of the most obvious, or visible, manifestation of the global crisis that migration is wrapped up in right now. These are people for whom life is untenable where they are, and we need to address that situation and how we receive them. Asylum cases illuminate the current global situation. To borrow the phrase from David Wallace-Wells, a journalist who writes about climate change, we are living increasingly in an uninhabitable earth, and asylum is one way we help make it habitable for each other.