Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond


Özlem Atar
PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen`s University, Canada


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Özlem Atar, PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen`s University, Canada. Her doctoral research engages Trump Era narratives of irregular migration from Central America and Mexico to the United States and explores the intersection of migrant justice activism and literature. Ozlem is on Twitter @OzlemAtar.

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

The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and BeyondThe Dispossessed opens with a quote from its namesake, Ursula K. Le Guin`s 1974 science fiction novel, thereby implying that readers should approach this journalistic work about asylum law and practice in the US like a dystopic narrative. Washington`s central contention is that US asylum protections have always been driven by economic and political goals rather than humanitarian responses to persecutions. The book presents the Trump administration`s assaults on asylum protections by fleshing out the case of Arnovis Guidos Portillo, a twenty-four-year-old Salvadoran man whose attempts to find refuge in the US end in failure thanks to a system designed to discriminate and torment the racialized poor.


The book includes nineteen dispatches in total. Featuring Arnovis in a migrant drop house in Mexico, the “Prologue” serves as a hook to this substantive research contribution to asylum literature. The author orients readers by introducing the figure of the asylum seeker as presented in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and then walks us through the convoluted processes with which the US Supreme Court has been wrestling since the UN language was adopted into law with the 1980 Refugee Act. The Prologue may be deployed as an undergraduate reading. 

The main body of the book comprises eighteen numbered chapters grouped under four sections. “First Attempt” includes four chapters, two of which theorize the role fear plays in asylum seeking and asylum adjudication processes. Credible fear of asylum seekers is pitted against the state`s fear of allowing the racialized poor onto its territory. “Second Attempt” is composed of five chapters opening with Arnovis`s first deportation. Second section continues to explore the roots of refuge and asylum in Hebraic, Islamic, and Greek traditions as well as interpreting the case of fugitive slaves as a precedent in the Americas. “Third Attempt” focuses on Arnovis and his brother-in-law`s journey north with their very young daughters. The six chapters in this section expose the horror the Trump Administration`s zero tolerance policy inflicted on asylum seekers through separating minor migrants from their adult family members in detention. “Can I live?” details the lethal consequences of asylum denial for various Central American migrants, probes life in sanctuary for a mother and son, and documents the lingering fear for the deported, including Arnovis and his daughter.        

Fear, the requisite for asylum decisions, takes the central stage in the book. Washington invites the reader to consider the fear that pushes many Central Americans to flee their homes and knock at US doors side by side with the fear of those who are behind secure doors. He advances that two countervailing fears, asylum seekers` actual “instigating” fear and the receiving nation`s future-oriented fear of demographic change, which propels locals to slam the door on the asylum seekers` face, leave countless people de facto stateless outside any protections. Washington cites Martha Nussbaum`s The Monarchy of Fear to argue that fear “persists beneath all [emotions] and infects them all, nibling around the edges of love and reciprocity.”

The Dispossessed incorporates the journalist`s observations, snippets from interviews, and generous quotes from secondary sources. With its sections on the migrant trail, it calls to mind several other journalistic works on irregular migration from Central America and Mexico to the United States. In this respect, the book is comparative to Enrique`s Journey by Sonia Nazario, The Beast by Óscar Martínez, and Far Away Brothers by Laureen Markham. Following Martínez and others, Washington sets out to walk certain parts of the migrant trail with the expressed goal of understanding migrants` travails. While these sections may appeal to general readers` sensibilities, I found them to be insignificant. The journalist`s motivation to understand what migrants go through may have been genuine, but their actual experience is far removed from the abuse, deprivation, and indignity asylum seekers face prior to and during their migration. 

The book`s most significant contribution concerns the account on family separation. To my knowledge, The Dispossessed is the first book to document how the US “kidnapped” and disappeared some migrant children while in detention in order to deter their parents from seeking asylum and pressure them to sign ‘voluntary’ deportation documents. Washington reveals how Arnovis was tricked into entrusting his daughter to ICE officials, who withheld information regarding the girl`s whereabouts from him for about a month. Arnovis`s account is a testimony to the brutal practice of family separation, or officially sanctioned psychological warfare to force detained asylum seekers to give up hope. The Dispossessed details how the deterrence paradigm violates the Convention.

While anyone interested in legal, academic, and literary accounts of US asylum policies and practices may find Washington`s book of interest, the ideal audience for The Dispossessed is researchers, students, and professionals working on asylum. Readers may focus on individual sections of the book by skimming detailed chapter titles. However, they must read the entire book to follow the central character`s story, which opens with a climactic incident when he escapes a ‘safe’ house where he is kept hostage because his brother erroneously transfers the smuggler payment to another person. Meticulous readers, perhaps upper year undergraduate students or graduate students in Border Studies, Asylum Studies, International Refugee Law or Migration and Refugee Studies, might benefit from keeping a reading journal to trace legal terms the author glosses the first time they appear in the text and to note other relevant sources.

The Dispossessed is an impressive depository of academic, literary, and journalistic sources on asylum. It references and can be read together with Refuge Lost by Daniel Ghezelbash and The Ethics and Politics of Asylum by Matthew J. Gibney. The book also brings to mind, among many, Empire of Borders by Todd Miller; Justice for People on the Move by Gillian Brock; The Death of Asylum by Alison Mountz; and Migrating to Prison by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández.

“There are walls behind the walls” declares the opening epigraph, which forewarns about the complicated barriers to protection. Washington fully exposes the procedural and materials hurdles—the walls behind the walls—in a system created to deny the dispossessed their basic human right to protection.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Ö. Atar. (2022) Book Review: The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/06/book-review-dispossessed-story-asylum-us-mexican-border. Accessed on: 17/07/2024

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