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Jan 10, 2018

Fleeing a Culture of Violence; Migration and El Salvador

It was recently announced that the Trump administration has decided to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans who have been allowed to legally live and work in the United States since 2001 when devastating earthquakes struck El Salvador. There are approximately 200,000 Salvadorans currently living in the United Country under the program. Almost all will try to stay. While some of the country’s infrastructure has been rebuilt El Salvador remains one of the most violent countries on the planet. This should be reason enough to extend TPS for many years to come.

In the summer of 2014 I travelled to El Salvador as part of a human rights delegation with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. Upon my return, I published a theological reflection in the UU World and preached a sermon about my experiences there that I shared with congregations throughout New England. I wrote a third piece that I submitted to several magazines but was never able to publish. It seems like now is a good time to post the unpublished manuscript. My hope is that it will help further an understanding of what life is like in El Salvador and the kinds of situations that the Trump administration is planning to send Salvadorans back to.

Fleeing a Culture of Violence; Migration and El Salvador

After we pass the thick line of waiting family members I notice a white column next to the gate. At least, it was originally white. Now it is covered with a thick hatch of black ink, the remnants of finger-printing. The deportees emerge, one at a time, through the mesh gate and wipe their hands on the column, hoping, I imagine, to quickly leave behind at least one sign of their humiliation. They were heroes when they left, some of them walking for weeks until they reached the U.S./Mexico border. They were heroes while they were there, many of them sending several hundred dollars a month back to El Salvador to support their extended families. But now they are mostly ashamed and afraid.

I have travelled here with NDLON, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, to learn about the experiences of migrants: why they leave and what it is like for them when they are brought back.

We visit two repatriation centers during the week I am in El Salvador. The one at El Salvador’s International Airport, the one with the white column covered in fingerprints, is where deportees from the United States arrive. There are as many as 700 of them in a week. The other center is in San Salvador’s La Chacra neighborhood. It is for deportees from Mexico. The center by the airport reminds me of both a prison and a Greyhound bus station. When the deportees are taken off the planes they wait for processing in a poorly-lit room filled with rows of plastic molded Eames chairs in bold colors. None of the red, blue, black, and beige chairs are empty. In each one sits someone whose face is weighed down with a mixture of exhaustion and trauma. One part of their ordeal, usually months in detention, is coming to an end. Another, confronting their place in Salvadoran society, is about to start.


We are not allowed to bring cameras or audio recorders or cell phones into the repatriation centers. The deportees themselves aren’t eager to share their names. But they are willing to share their stories. At the center for deportees from Mexico, one man tells us he was deported after living in the United States for eleven years. He is almost quivering with anger. His wife and children are still there. This is his second time being deported. The first time he was caught in the United States and flown back to El Salvador on a plane. This time he only made it as far as Mexico; he was shipped back on a bus. He says that as soon as he can he will leave again.

Another man at the center explains why he fled. He is a victim of gang violence. He and two of his friends had operated a bus together. He was the driver, while his friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the fare collector. The bus driver and his other friend were allowed to live. Shortly afterwards the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill the two friends, because they had witnessed the murder. The gang murdered the friend while he ate dinner at a neighborhood pupuseria. That's when the bus driver decided to leave the country.

When the deportees arrive they are processed quickly. They are given a soft drink, a pupusa, and sent into a waiting room. After a brief wait they are interviewed by an immigration officer and, if necessary, given a health exam. If any of the deportees have criminal charges pending in El Salvador they are handed over to the police. There are three phones where, afterwards, they are permitted to make a free phone call.

The bus driver says he called his mother. She told him that it wasn’t safe for him to come home. He has no idea what he is going to do next.


Away from the repatriation centers I interview Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero. She is eager to tell me her story. Before she was deported, she worked with NDLON in Los Angeles, taking part in their Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Labor Theater Without Borders). Her husband and son still live in Los Angeles. Her son is five. He is named Barack, after the President who oversaw her deportation. "It is ironic," she tells me. Like many Hispanics, she thought that the election of the first black President would herald a better life for undocumented immigrants. Instead, she says, the first black President has deported more brown people than any of the white Presidents who preceded him, to date more than two million. She and her husband named their son after President Obama because of the hope he represented. She says, "I want to be with my son" before repeating, "Barack, it is ironic."


A red mesh bag containing a wallet, a cell phone, maybe a couple of pieces of mail, shoelaces, is all deportees are allowed to bring back with them from the United States. Whether they were caught sneaking across the border or rounded up after living in the States for fifteen years, they bring back the same small number of possessions.


I meet José Efrain Mortimez Rivas at another event organized by NDLON. This man wants his story told. He lived in the United States for six years. He worked hard, got married, and regularly sent money back to El Salvador. Twice a month, he sent $300: $100 for his mother, and $100 each for the mothers of his two children in El Salvador.

His move to the United States was a family investment. Before he left his family raised $6,000 to pay a coyote to smuggle him from El Salvador to the United States. The investment more than paid off. During his time in the United States he sent back over $40,000. There are no other financial instruments available to poor people in El Salvador with six-hundred percent return rates.

Rivas lived in Melbourne, Florida, and worked as day laborer there. He made, on average, $70 to $80 a day. Now that he is back in El Salvador, when he can find work, which isn’t often, he is lucky if he can make $10 a day. He isn’t able to support his mother or his children. His wife, who still lives in Florida, has left him. He is not sure if he wants to risk the return journey, but he knows that his options if he stays are very limited. He is exactly my age, 37, and tells me that the best part of his life is over.


The journey to the United States is dangerous, the deportation process ugly. One young woman I meet outside the repatriation center describes a little of her experience. It took her five weeks to travel to the United States. Before she made it across the border she saw two of her fellow migrants die. Both young men, they drowned trying to cross a flooding river. She was in the United States for ten months: the first five in Los Angeles hustling for all kinds of work; the last five in a deportation center in Texas.

Her story about her time in detention catches my attention. The place was called the Coastal Bend Detention Center. There, she worked everyday from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. She says, she was paid $1.00 a day. A phone call cost a dollar. A bag of chips from the canteen was $2.50. The center, she claims, was privately run.


When we arrive at the repatriation center in San Salvador, there is a small swarm of reporters. They are waiting outside to get interviews with and pictures of families that have been deported. No one wants to talk to them. The families draw shirts up over their heads and pile into taxis in an effort to escape the journalists. The journalists, meanwhile, chase after the taxis like paparazzi pursuing celebrities. Two news anchors, young women caked in make-up and wearing bold single color dresses, have started to work-up a sweat.

Our arrival provides a welcome distraction. Pablo Alvarado, NDLON’s Executive Director, holds an impromptu press conference to publicize the results of a study on migrants that his organization has commissioned with José Simeón Cañas Central American University (which everyone calls UCA). Then the gate opens, the journalists scatter, and the chase after another taxi begins.


Inside the repatriation center a bus with children from Mexico has just arrived. I see a nursing mother whose baby can’t be more than a month old. There are three boys traveling together unaccompanied, the oldest no more than fifteen. The center feels like a refugee camp. It is overrun. There’s no place for the adults to sit or for the children to play. The bathrooms don’t include tables for changing diapers. After seeing the nursing mother I ask someone in my group, "How bad does your life have to be to make migrating to the United States with a tiny baby seem like a good idea?"


While not visiting the detention centers, we talk with NDLON leaders, attend presentations, and meet with some senior government officials. The main reason we have any access here is Francisco "Pancho" Pacheco, NDLON’s National Director of Organizing. Pancho is a former central committee member of one of the organizations behind Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, better known as the FMLN, now El Salvador’s ruling party. It turns out that many of Pancho’s old comrades in arms are now leading members of the government. During our week in El Salvador we meet with the President of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, the Vice President, the Vice President’s wife, and Lidwina Magarín, the Deputy Foreign Minister for Salvadorans Living Abroad. Lidwina fought under Pancho and took his command when he fled to the United States in 1995, three years after the Peace Accords were signed. In the years between the signing of the Accords and Pancho’s decision to leave El Salvador he survived three assassination attempts.

He arrived in Los Angeles with little English and began shaping up on corners, looking for work, like so many other Salvadorian migrants. A brilliant organizer, he naturally began to talk to other day laborers and became involved in a local workers center. This led, in time, to him becoming part of NDLON’s leadership. In recent years it has become safe for him to travel back to El Salvador. The FMLN has won the last two presidential elections and more than twenty years have passed since the end of the civil war. Politically motivated violence is largely a thing of the past. Now, the danger is gang violence. Despite this change, Pancho doesn’t want to move back to El Salvador. After almost twenty years in the United States it feels like home and he is not confident he could find work in his native country. Still, he tells, he thinks he might move back when he retires.

During the week I spend in El Salvador I only see Pancho get flustered once. The van we are traveling in breaks down in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Quickly, I learn that we are in gang territory. On one side of the road: a coffee plantation. On the other side of the road: sheer rock crowned by crowded foliage, trees draped in tropical greenery.

Pablo, or someone, makes a phone call and two cars appear. There are three white people in our delegation. It is urgent that the three of us leave immediately. As we get into the cars I see that a group of people had begun slowly moving up the highway towards us.


As many as 90,000 unaccompanied children are expected to migrate from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States in 2014. The majority say they are fleeing violence. The murder rate in the communities they are leaving is below only Syria.

Another member of our delegation tells me about a child who successfully made it to her community in Los Angeles. He left because the local gang started threatening the kids on his soccer team, trying to extort money from their parents. When the gang killed one of the team members, he fled. By the time he was safely reunited with family members in the United States, the gang had murdered six more children on the team.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Tags El Salvador Immigration NDLON