The U.S. is closing its doors to asylum seekers

‘The Dispossessed’ follows a family’s harrowing search for safety, and asks what new policies say about the nation’s long-standing ideals.


One day in October 2016, in a village on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast, 24-year-old Arnovis Guidos Portillo accidentally collided with a local gang member’s brother during a soccer game. After word reached the gang leadership, men came to Arnovis’ parents’ house, looking for him. He began receiving threatening phone calls. Sos tumba, they said. You’re dead.

“Just leave,” his brother, Miguel, said. But in gang-controlled El Salvador, relocating to a new town was not enough: Arnovis had to leave his country entirely.

For John Washington, Arnovis’ story is a familiar one. A longtime immigration reporter, Washington has spent years documenting the escalating violence that is driving ever more people to flee Central America’s Northern Triangle and parts of Mexico. In his first book, The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the U.S.-Mexico Border and Beyond, Washington chronicles the fate asylum seekers face in the United States. With global refugees now numbering more than 70 million, why, Washington asks, is the world’s richest country refusing to protect them? 

The Dispossessed follows Arnovis’ three unsuccessful attempts to gain asylum in the U.S., interspersed with the stories of other asylum seekers. Along the way, Washington adds political, historical and literary context to the idea of asylum, beginning with Ancient Greece, and the questions it raises. Washington asks: “Should the obligations we have to foreigners and those we have to our fellow citizens be weighed on a common scale?”

BEFORE THE SOCCER FIELD INCIDENT, Arnovis had no desire to go to the U.S. He was happy in his seaside village, working at a sea turtle hatchery and climbing coconut trees for extra money. He made his mother laugh by performing Juan Gabriel songs.

Fear derailed everything. But, as Arnovis discovered, it was not enough to qualify him for asylum in the U.S. Applicants must establish that they fear persecution from their home government, and that the persecution stems from their membership in a particular social group — their race, religion, nationality or political opinions. But many of today’s asylum seekers are fleeing nongovernmental actors, such as gangs and drug cartels, and their fears are compounded by systemic threats including poverty, climate change and sexual assault. In 2017, more than 331,000 people applied for asylum at the U.S. border, roughly six times as many as in 2010. The U.S. denied 90% of them.

Washington seeks to validate asylum seekers’ stories and debunk the myth that most are economic migrants out to game the system. If there’s a hole in his reporting, it’s that except for the occasional anecdote from a lawyer or a Border Patrol agent quoted in a report, we rarely hear from the people on the other side of the system. This is a missed opportunity. The union that represents asylum officers, for example, has begun filing briefs against its own employer, calling its ever-more-restrictive policies “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.”

On Arnovis’ last attempt to reach the U.S., in 2018, he brought his 5-year-old daughter, Meybelín. His brother in Kansas helped pay for a “proper” coyote to make the journey safer than his previous attempts. Neither Arnovis nor his brother imagined the trauma that he and his daughter would face inside the United States.

Just a few months earlier, the Trump administration had announced a “zero tolerance” approach to unauthorized immigration, mandating that parents who cross the border without permission — even to seek asylum — would be separated from their accompanying children with no plan to reunite them. After Arnovis and Meybelín crossed the Rio Grande, they turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents to ask for asylum. The agents took them to a migrant detention center in Texas and held them inside large cages. A few days later, a Border Patrol officer took Meybelín from Arnovis and transferred her to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Where’s my daughter?” Arnovis asked Border Patrol officers before he was transferred to another detention center without her. They told him they didn’t know he had a daughter. Distraught, Arnovis could only wonder: What happened to my daughter? Who had her? Who knew where she was?

Three weeks later, he still had no idea where his daughter was. In desperation, he signed his own voluntary deportation order. He never had a chance to apply for asylum.

But if there are limits to our compassion, he suggests, there should also be limits to our cruelty.

Recounting Arnovis’ experience, Washington admits that it is not possible for any single country to extend its protection to everybody. But if there are limits to our compassion, he suggests, there should also be limits to our cruelty.

Near the end of the book, Washington visits Arnovis in El Salvador after he has been reunited with Meybelín. His life is still in danger, but Arnovis has no plans to flee. It’s a perverse sign that the architects of America’s current system are achieving their goal: Make the U.S. miserable enough for asylum seekers, and they will stay away. Washington wonders if this response is emblematic of something more troubling. “Perhaps,” he writes, “we can’t extend our roof because the foundation is in shambles.”   

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Note: This story was updated to correct the subtitle of The Dispossessed.

High Country News Classifieds