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In January, a woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande while attempting to cross into the United States; border patrols claimed that Texas Rangers, under orders from Gov. Greg Abbott, refused to let them intervene. As New Yorker journalist Jonathan Blitzer argues in his capacious, stirring "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here," this kind of tragic episode is but the latest link in a chain of atrocities at the heart of our nation's immigration plight.

Flash back to the Cold War: Across the globe, the U.S. and Soviet Union embarked on a series of proxy conflicts that wreaked havoc on impoverished peoples. (Vietnam is the textbook case.) The Central American theater kicked up with the election of Ronald Reagan, itching to project power in the wake of Jimmy Carter's erratic tack on human rights. For those seeking asylum, the devil lurked in the details of who, where, when and why: "Some were allowed to enter the country on the grounds that they would eventually appear before a judge; others were jailed, summarily deported or expelled straight into Mexico. The randomness of the system was a cruelty all its own."

Blitzer reveals a rogues' gallery of villains, from the famous — Elliott Abrams, Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller — to shadowy operators. He delves into the corruption rampant throughout Central America: There are dense, disquieting passages on death squads, gang murders and the complicity of presidents from both sides of the aisle. Obama, "deporter in chief," turned away a flood of migrants while the Trump administration separated 26,000 children from their parents, a permanent stain on our moral character.

Blitzer assiduously chronicles this dark history with a keen eye for individual lives; the personal is literally political. We meet Juan, a cardiologist from El Salvador tortured by right-wing extremists, and Keldy, a Honduran ripped from her teenage sons after they all were found wandering amid a New Mexico desert. Blitzer beautifully portrays Keldy's inner grace: "Occasionally, the other detainees would see Keldy crying softly to herself or staring off into space with bloodshot eyes. But she never seemed despairing ... The detainees wanted to be around la pastora. She prayed for them and led prayer sessions each day in the yard ... Some of them called her la profeta, the prophet."

Those dispatched back to their countries faced grim consequences. "The gangs went after American deportees because they were immediately conspicuous. If their clothing didn't expose them, it was their clunky Spanish, the style of their gait, stray expressions, barely perceptible tics and mannerisms — a whole host of tells that they often didn't know they had." Blitzer charts the ebb and flow of attitudes, the U.S.' sanctimonious give-me-your-tired-your-poor stance at odds with enduring nativism and xenophobia.

Blitzer's research and reporting are extensive and impeccable, a feat in an age of TikTok memes and Twitter mobs. But perhaps his most resonant, if damning, argument is just how oblivious Americans have been — and still are — to widespread suffering committed in our name. Out of sight, out of mind. Blitzer never shirks from his duty: to show us who we truly are. His is a vital, momentous book.

Hamilton Cain, who reviews fiction and nonfiction for the New York Times Book Review and the Boston Globe, lives in Brooklyn.

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis

By: Jonathan Blitzer.

Publisher: Penguin, 544 pages, $32.