Upon hearing that his friend Walter Benjamin had committed suicide rather than face deportation into the hands of the Nazis, Bertolt Brecht composed a short elegiac poem, “On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.” “Empires collapse,” he wrote. “Gang leaders / are strutting about like statesmen. The nations of man / No longer visible under all those armaments.”
Brecht could easily have been describing twenty-first-century El Salvador or Honduras, where gang members not only strut around like statesmen, but are indeed officials of a kind of state. Today, another fascism is rising from the ashes of a past that never fully died: a new stage of neoliberal power, presaged by the tragedy of Pinochet and consummated in the deranged and farcical specter of Trump or Bolsonaro—an era of capitalist violence and dispossession perhaps even more savage than the last.
For as long as people have been dispossessed of their land, expelled from their homes, targeted and attacked and forced to flee, they have also sought asylum, recounts journalist, translator, and activist John Washington in a remarkable new book, The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexico Border and Beyond. The word asylum, Washington explains, comes from the Greek a-sylos: free from despoiling and pillaging. A place safeguarded against incursion and violence. A refuge.
The right of asylum “has a long and sacred history that dates back to the very beginnings of regulated political life,” wrote Hannah Arendt, another friend of Benjamin and herself a Jewish refugee. “Since ancient times it has protected both the refugee and the land of refuge from situations in which people were forced to become outlaws through circumstances beyond their control.” The Dispossessed tells the story of this sacred history, of its outlaws and law enforcers, and of the storytellers themselves: the prophets and playwrights and poets whose writings on questions of rights, sanctuary and fear are perhaps more illuminating now than ever before. Washington sifts through history, literature, and the archive of human thought so that, as Benjamin once advised, we might grasp the constellation that our own era has formed with earlier ones and “wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”
The Dispossessed reads like a novel. It is a beautiful and grievous tangle of history, reportage, philosophy, and testimony, with a structure and spirit somewhat reminiscent of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia: firmly grounded storytelling charged with the clarity of social and historical analysis. Washington tells an incisive and accessible history of US asylum and immigration policy—with its origins in white supremacist and anti-communist ideology—and provides a succinct but comprehensive account of Trump’s evisceration of the protections once afforded the select few “granted room under the wing of the leviathan.”
Above all, it is the story of one man’s life, as fear, oppression, and injustice press in on him, his family, and his community from all sides and with relentless force. It is the story of Arnovis—father, worker, victim of gang terror, refugee, survivor—trying to support his young daughter, Meybelín, as they travel a dangerous road in a troubled time, becoming outlaws through forces beyond their control.
At once epic and quintessential, yet tragically particular, Arnovis’s story binds together the narrative arc of The Dispossessed. It is his story, told in his words, sitting at his family’s table. But it is also part of an infinite constellation of stories, a collective experience of trauma, survival, and resistance that Washington weaves into the book, likewise giving their protagonists room to speak for themselves.
When Arnovis talks about why he had to leave his home in El Salvador, we learn about the superstorm of poverty, climate change, and violence driving the exodus of which he is but one small part, and of the asphyxiating grip of gangs, who have “de facto political control” over much of the region, collecting taxes, conducting surveillance, enforcing laws (and now quarantines). Following Arnovis and Meybelín across borders—herded like animals at the hands of unpredictable and violent men, slammed into safehouses and packed into delivery trucks—we hear about the million dangers along that winding trail snaking northward toward the sealed gates of the American fortress. Then detention, separation, and the cold bureaucracy of a system designed to fail. Fears, deemed uncredible. And the insane despair of completing an impossible journey only to be sent back to the beginning, to start down that same harrowing path all over again.
“ICE comes for me in my dreams,” says Hilda Ramírez, speaking with Washington in the church where she and her twelve-year-old son have been living in sanctuary for the past two years—sheltering in place not because of a virus, but because Obama administration courts had denied them asylum, and ICE agents were now targeting them for deportation. After fleeing Guatemala under threat of death, Hilda and her son, Ivan, had survived being trafficked through the Mexican border city of Reynosa and into the hands of the US Border Patrol. The Border Patrol held them for days in the agency’s infamously freezing-cold cells, dubbed hieleras, or ice boxes, then transferred them to prolonged captivity at the Karnes family detention center in Texas, where in 2015 Hilda joined seventy-eight other women in a hunger strike to protest their confinement and the facility’s degrading and dangerous conditions. “I think we were so brave,” Hilda says. “I never imagined I would be inside a prison and do something like that. We just wanted our freedom… They were mistreating us, giving us bad food… [so] we got together and had a meeting and decided to strike.”
“[A]s some hunker down and defend their privilege,” Washington writes, “[we must decide if] we are willing to see more and more of humanity amassed along border walls into camps of squalor and desperation.” As things get worse, we would do well not to forget how bad they already were, and to push past any lazy hope for a return to normality—to that constant state of exception in which the wealthy few feed off the misery of everyone else. As a pandemic sweeps the globe and staggers the economy, things that were once considered politically impossible are happening. In response to the coronavirus crisis, Portugal, for example, has temporarily afforded full citizenship rights to all migrants and refugees. In the US, demands to release both undocumented and documented prisoners grow louder each day, as strikes and autonomous survival programs pop up in neighborhoods and rural communities across the country and people experiment with new forms of cooperation and protest. Meanwhile, the steady work of humanitarian solidarity continues, as residents and aid workers in the Southwest US borderlands provide hospitality and support to those making that dangerous crossing, and shelters throughout Mexico give brief reprieve to those on the migration trail.
Storytelling has the potential to be its own kind of solidarity, but the work of journalists and documentarists is sometimes more an enterprise of extraction and self-promotion than a contribution to struggles for justice. Sensibility, as Susan Sontag famously observed, is an especially hard thing to talk about, and in the end, “nothing is more decisive” than taste. It is precisely this inarticulable thing—this “logic of taste”—that in large part forms the often thin line separating gestures of charity or naive sympathy from the work of solidarity. Washington’s clear-eyed reporting and analysis—which begins, as it always must, with careful listening—is imbued with a logic of taste firmly rooted in such work. At a time when representing the “migrant experience” is sometimes little more than an exercise in sensationalizing and exploiting the suffering of others for the sake of profit or prestige—or perhaps even worse, of “humanizing” that suffering without attesting to the structures that cause it—The Dispossessed provides a fine example of what journalism done out of a genuine sense of solidarity might look like.