Review: John Washington’s The Dispossessed

Arnovis, at twenty-two, had been living a quiet life. He worked the night shift at a turtle hatchery on a remote Salvadoran island. He lived with his family and five year old in the thatched home he grew up in. Ahead of him lay a future that appeared uneventful and peaceful. 

But that future became impossible after a perceived slight at a soccer game threw him afoul of MS-13, a violent street gang that’d taken root on the island. Sos tumba,” gang members warned him on anonymous phone calls—“You’re dead.” Facing imminent death in El Salvador, Arnovis was forced to flee, soon thrusting him into the nightmare that is our global border regime. 

In The Dispossessed, John Washington, an activist with No More Deaths–No Mas Muertos, longtime Spanish translator, and journalist, takes Arnovis’s story—his harrowing escapes from El Salvador and repeated rejections for asylum in the US—and uses it breathe  feverish life into that nightmarish global border system. By illustrating the life of a man torn apart by asylum, Washington paints a jolting vision of a world of cleaved by global economic apartheid.

The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond by John Washington, Verso Books, 2020.

Arnovis made three trips from El Salvador to the US. Each time he was rejected, funnelled instead through a gulag archipelago of immigration jails and then sent back injudiciously to El Salvador, where he feared he would be killed by gangs or the policemen or soldiers working with them. By the end, fearing for his daughter’s life, Arnovis took her North too. She too, in the end, would be stolen from him.

Washington makes it abundantly clear that Arnovis’s story is far from unique. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were ripped to shreds by US-backed counterinsurgencies in the 1980s, inundated with weapons, and stripped of their wealth by asymmetric “free trade agreements” in the 90s and 2000s, are now as notorious for belching out US-bound migrants as they are for rampant gang and state violence. 

After all, the gangs for which the region is notorious were themselves the outgrowths of those same US-financed conflicts. Traumatized Central American war refugees, the majority of them teenagers, were deported en masse to El Salvador after over a decade of being abandoned to low-intensity race war in the poor, underfunded, over policed neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Upon arrival, they coalesced with the last remnants of government death squads, landing in a country that was being economically ravaged by structural adjustment measures directed by the International Monetary Fund, just as it was recovering from a 13-year civil war. It’s the cruelest of historical ironies: that the systemic mass violence and deprivation preconditioning migrants to leave were created by the same country now sanctimonious in denying them safety. 

Washington interweaves Arnovis’s story alongside those of so many others trapped within the US’s nightmarish system of borders. And he grounds this polyphonic narrative within a deft historical examination of the ideas of borders and asylum itself.

“The ‘border,’” he writes, “is more than a physical obstruction—more than a wall or a fence—more than a line on a map, more than a political organizing tool. The border produces and maintains extreme levels of inequality—some live, and live comfortably, and some suffer, and suffer miserably.”

The Dispossessed is a powerful condemnation of the US asylum system, and the global system of violent inequality it represents. 

In recounting Arnovis’s travails, Washington builds on the work of journalist Todd Miller, who in Empire of Borders illustrated how the US Border, in an epoch of deepening global inequalities, shouldn’t be understood merely as a line dividing the US from Mexico. 

Rather, the border is a labyrinth of militarized walls criss-crossing the global south, its purpose being to fortify inequality and hold off the growing millions of people displaced by climate change, poverty, systemic violence and war. 

Arnovis endured unspeakable terrors to cross borders, the trench-like succession of militarized lines fortified to keep people like him from safety. He was held hostage by paramilitary groups. He was shot at by Mexican Marines. He endured psychological torture in a US Border Patrol hielera—a freezer-like room where agents leave apprehended migrants for days at a time, with little food and often without explanation of their situation or legal rights, in an attempt to “break” them mentally and make them preemptively authorize their own deportation. 

Arnovis’ story, above all, embodies a truism geographer Reece Jones has made evident in his book Violent Borders: hardening borders in a world as unequal as ours doesn’t stop immigration. But it does increase the suffering, pain, and death associated with it. The fortification of borders, therefore, is itself an act of violence.

The most painful passages in The Dispossessed come as Arnovis makes his last trip north, trying to keep his daughter Meybelín calm, pretends the nightmarish migrant journey they’re undertaking is little more than a father-daughter adventure. 

While herded onto the floor of the jungle by human traffickers, Arnovis pretends to be happy, smiling, urging Meybelín to notice how pretty the trees are. 

Early in their journey, while still in Guatemala, the two five-year-old daughters of Arnovis and his cousin laughingly embrace, excited to have left their home the first time. Later on, as they begin feeling the gravity of their predicament, dehydrated and hungry, held hostage by traffickers in north Mexico, their embrace is sombre. The excitement now gone, the girls clutch one another out of sadness, uncertainty, and fear. 

While looking at the border patrol officers across the Rio Grande, Arnovis tries to cheer his daughter by saying they’ve arrived in the land of joy and opportunity. Weeks later, Arnovis was lied to by immigration agents and then deported to El Salvador. His daughter was separated from him and—unaware of what was happening, unable to speak English—was flown to an immigration jail in another part of the country. 

Only after international media scandal was a traumatized Meybelín finally reunited with Arnovis. But she was among a small minority for having such luck. Nearly 5,500 migrant children remained separated from their parents as of October 2019, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. 

In the echo-chambers of right-wing punditry, the onus of blame for mass immigration is placed on individual immigrants, who are often depicted by authorities in an extremely negative light. Asylum is conceived within the same xenophobic tenor as the “anchor baby” myth, discussed as if it were a cheat code used to get a foot in the door of America’s prosperity. 

New restrictions against asylum seekers, in the words of Attorney General William Barr, are sold as “decreasing forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States.” 

The narrative, as always, is that it is the immigrants’ fault for leaving. 

As if it was the immigrants’ fault that the US inundated these countries with weapons, destroying them through war and climate change and stripped their wealth economic pillaging. As if it was immigrant parents fault for making the calculated but highly logical risk of going north, where their children may have a future. As if those parents had failed because they wanted their kids to stay alive.

Washington’s prose has a hypnotic, poetic cadence. The story races along, carrying the reader on with a novelistic pulse that can feel uncommon for books with a similar depth and thoroughness of research.

In one disturbing scene, Washington profiles a ten-year-old, undocumented, Indigenous Guatemalan boy trapped in a sanctuary church with his single mother. Outside the church’s perimeter, ominous vehicles for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lay in constant wait. One wrong step outside the limits of the church, a line that for them may as well be a border, and they face deportation, a loss of everything.

“ICE,” the boy’s mother admits, “follows me even my dreams.” 

The US asylum system can only be described as dystopian. In determining the eligibility of someone’s appeal to stay in the United States, the asylum judge becomes a de facto executioner: they decide whether someone lives or dies. In one disturbing case, Washington writes how a farmer from Chihuahua, Mexico who was threatened by the Sinaloa Cartel—an organization long said to be protected by the Mexican military—had his asylum claim rejected because he couldn’t provide witnesses to his threats. 

Not long after his deportation to Mexico, the farmer’s body was found ripped to shreds by over sixty bullets from AK-47s. The Dispossessed makes clear it’s not just the killers who are responsible for the deaths of returned refugees. The judges who deny them safety bear responsibility as well.

For Washington, accepting asylum seekers, in the end, means reckoning with the sheer human detritus being displaced by decades of imperialism and neoliberal capitalism. It’s a test of our humanity in a world the US, by and large, has helped set fire to:

As hundreds of millions are left without homes, we must confront whether or not we are willing to live in an era of global apartheid—a world of comfort and wealth next to a world of fear and a constant clambering at the gates. We must decide if, as some hunker down and defend their privilege, we are willing to see more and more of humanity amassed along border walls into camps of squalor and desperation.

The Dispossessed is a searing manifesto against the monstrous inhumanity of the US led, global border regime. It’s a sad, elegiac record of human pain and cruelty. In its call for humanity in a world darkening under the pall of ascendant, anti-immigrant xenophobia, it stands out as a stubborn and poetic light.

Author Bio:

Jared Olson is a writer, freelance journalist and Pulitzer Center grantee with a current focus on the struggle for justice in Central America. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Toward Freedom, and El Faro English.