In Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here (Penguin Press, Jan.), Blitzer traces the U.S. policies that gave rise to and shape Central American migration.

What was your objective for this book?

If there’s one through line, it’s an attempt to understand immigration in terms of how profoundly connected the U.S. and Central America have been for the last 40 years. You can’t understand any one of these countries in the absence of the others.

You focus on the stories of several people from Central America.

Each of their experiences illuminates a slightly different thing. Through Juan, who has lived in several countries, you can really understand the interconnected history of the U.S. and Central America. Keldy’s story of family separation is especially harrowing, and her behavior under the circumstances was positively heroic. Lucrezia shows what it looks like if someone stays and fights in their home country.

How has U.S. asylum policy become overtaxed?

In the 1980s, the sanctuary movement helped Central Americans cross into the U.S. at a time when the U.S. government was discriminating against Central American asylum seekers because of American foreign policy commitments in the region. These activists, who were described as engaging in civil disobedience, were trying to put in motion the principles of the 1980 Refugee Act. They were essentially trying to interpret an American law—to actually uphold its principles, which the Reagan administration wasn’t doing. But now, because the U.S. Congress has for decades shirked its responsibility to update the overall immigration system, avenues to come to the U.S. legally are closing, and one of the few doors left open is the asylum system, which has been leveraged in ways that it was never meant to be leveraged.

Has U.S. foreign policy changed in the years since Reagan supported repressive anti-communist dictatorships?

In recent years, there has been more clarity about the importance of good governance initiatives, of supporting democracy in the region, of combating corruption. But I think what Trump ushered in was such a profound shift to the right that now the center isn’t where it used to be. The sensation I had—and I know this was true for other journalists—is that it was a surreal and very upsetting experience trying to explain to American readers what the principles of the U.S. immigration system were at the same time as the Trump administration was trying to tear that system down, while also trying to map out almost an inverse image: what a sane system could look like. It was hard then and it’s hard in this book to be unflinching about reality while trying to orient a reader around what ought to be.