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El Salvador: Civil War, Natural Disasters, and Gang Violence Drive Migration

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El Salvador: Civil War, Natural Disasters, and Gang Violence Drive Migration

Salvadoran kids

Much of the inequality seen in El Salvador today can be traced back decades to the accumulation of land in the hands of a few. (Photo: FAO-AMEXCID)

Migration from El Salvador is shaped by a history of civil unrest, external interventions, and deeply rooted social inequalities. Home to roughly 6.4 million people, the country is the smallest by territory in Central America yet the most densely populated. A stagnant economy, natural disasters, and high levels of various forms of violence—in part the result of U.S. involvement in the region and U.S. immigration policies of the past three decades, as well as the Salvadoran government’s ongoing failure to address systemic social problems—have pushed growing numbers of people to leave over the past two decades. 

Over the past century, Salvadorans have moved across the world, though today most by far live in the United States. The nearly 1.4 million immigrants from El Salvador, representing one-fifth of its population, account for the second-largest Latin American group in the United States, after Mexicans. Sharing deep economic, military, and political ties, the United States and El Salvador have become entwined by a migration context that connects communities in both countries.

The precarious legal status of many Salvadoran migrants has left them particularly susceptible to the effects of changes in U.S. and regional immigration policy. Along with immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala, Salvadorans have been highly represented among families and unaccompanied minors arriving at the Southwest border in recent years, and have faced ramped-up enforcement there and in Mexico. Further, in 2018 the Trump administration announced it would not extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans, throwing some 195,000 beneficiaries into limbo as they are now expected to leave the country by September 2019—or risk deportation. 

This article traces the history of Salvadoran immigration and emigration, profiles the population of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States—with a focus on their treatment under U.S. immigration policies—and examines emerging and ongoing policy issues affecting these migrants and their families.

Struggles for Land and Movement of People

El Salvador’s status today as a major origin country of migrants and asylum seekers can be traced back to decades of deep political and socioeconomic inequities, which have long made life difficult for most Salvadorans.

After El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821, its new leaders sought to develop the country economically, viewing international markets as the key to success. Migration to the country during and immediately after the colonial period was composed mainly of Spaniards and to a lesser degree other Europeans, with a smaller influx of Blacks via the Caribbean coasts of neighboring countries. By 1860, El Salvador had become a major coffee exporter. But coffee production came with major land redistribution, benefiting the elites of the time. Reliance on one major export would also make the country’s economy vulnerable to even minor fluctuations in the global coffee market.

Between 1880 and 1890, the government privatized communal lands—where many indigenous Salvadorans lived—to make coffee production more efficient and lucrative. Although communities organized against land privatization, the government, favoring wealthy European immigrants and local ladino (or mestizo) families who were developing the country, proceeded to turn these lands into coffee plantations. A few local elites held a monopoly on coffee exports, and displaced peasants, primarily of indigenous origin, became the labor force.

By the late 1920s, coffee accounted for more than 90 percent of El Salvador’s export revenue, and rising prices brought prosperity. But prices plummeted during the Great Depression, and financial turmoil hit the country. Wages fell and peasants, who had already lost their land to privatization, became unemployed. Small landholders could not make payments on loans and lost their plots, facilitating even more concentration of land in the hands of a few.

Just months after the election of President Arturo Araujo in 1931, a military coup d’état brought General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez to power. By 1932 peasants and students had organized to demand political freedom, economic reforms, and land redistribution. In response, the government ordered the killing of thousands of Salvadorans, mainly indigenous peasants. This event, known as La Matanza, contributed to the consolidation of power in the hands of the economic elite, and established military authority in the country for decades to come.

Beginnings of Migration

The military-economic elite alliance was solidly antireform, opposed to even minor economic or political reforms—a position it would maintain for decades. Wages were low and working conditions harsh, motivating tens of thousands of Salvadorans to emigrate.

An estimated 25,000 Salvadorans migrated to Honduras in the 1930s, primarily to work in banana plantations. This number rose as access to land and decent wages continued to shrink in El Salvador; in the 1940s there were close to 40,000 Salvadorans living in Honduras and by 1969 there were about 350,000. Salvadorans also left to work on the Panama Canal and in U.S. shipyards during World War II, particularly in San Francisco. In addition, agricultural workers moved internally to work on coffee plantations. These movements contributed to a reshaping of Salvadoran families, as many women stayed home and filled dual roles of breadwinner and caretaker while men moved to other parts of the country and abroad.

By the 1960s, economic reforms brought significant changes to El Salvador’s social structure. The Salvadoran economy expanded but the growth in profits also generated social inequality that solidified class divisions. Further, the Alliance for Progress, a U.S.-based program created in response to the perceived threat of communism in Latin America, expanded funding for education, health care, and housing—but also pushed for a focus on “security concerns” in the region, providing El Salvador with U.S. economic and military assistance.

Amid growing tensions with El Salvador—which culminated in a five-day war—Honduras announced in 1969 that it would start expelling foreign-born farmers from their lands. As many as 300,000 Salvadoran peasants were pushed out of Honduras as a result. This return migration amplified economic and social pressures in El Salvador. By 1970, the returnees had swelled the ranks of landless peasants, who faced unemployment rates of up to 45 percent as well as wage stagnation. In 1971, an estimated 41 percent of Salvadoran peasants were landless. The period of economic prosperity hit an abrupt end as the price of coffee once again fell in the 1970s.

Despite these convulsions, wealth continued to grow and become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leading to even deeper social inequality. Conditions were ripe for the rise of civic associations and political organizing from both the left and right.

Civil War Fuels Mass Displacement

Brewing social unrest erupted into open conflict by the mid-1970s, culminating in a bloody civil war that lasted 12 years. The United States played a pivotal role by providing unprecedented levels of military aid, training, and advisors to the governments in power. The war displaced more than 1 million Salvadorans—roughly one-fifth of the population at the time—both within the country and throughout Central America and to Mexico, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Neighboring countries including Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama set up refugee camps to accommodate Salvadorans fleeing the war.

Some 75,000 people were killed during the war, in addition to the thousands who were tortured and disappeared; more than 85 percent of these atrocities were committed by the government, according to a UN Truth Commission report. Such extreme levels of state violence and sustained terror forever altered the social fabric of the country, even after the Peace Accords were signed to end the war in 1992. El Salvador was left awash in weapons and with levels of psychosocial trauma that amounted to a “militarization of the mind,” in the words of the scholar and assassinated Jesuit priest, Ignacio Martín-Baró. Meanwhile, socioeconomic structures were untouched, and inequality continued to deepen.

In the years following the war, El Salvador implemented the neoliberal policies that the U.S. Agency for International Development—and later the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—pushed on developing countries in exchange for loans. These policies contributed to a dramatic decline in social spending, especially on education, and led to the privatization of institutions including national banks and public services. Here too, the United States played a key role by backing privatization.

In January 2001, the country adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency, which contributed to the lowest growth rate seen in El Salvador during the last 60 years. It also helped make everyday life for most Salvadorans more expensive and basic needs nearly impossible to meet. Such turmoil in the economy left youth—who had grown up in a militarized society surrounded by everyday violence—with limited opportunities. Young Salvadorans increasingly became involved with gangs, as these groups provided them with the financial opportunities and social resources that the government continued to systematically deny them.

Poverty and Violence Persist

Without changing the country’s unequal economic structure, the Peace Accords did not improve life for most Salvadorans. The quarter-century since has seen worsening living conditions, widening inequality, and an economy artificially sustained by the remittances that Salvadorans abroad, mostly in the United States, send regularly to their families. These remittances—which totaled US $5 billion in 2017, roughly one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to World Bank data—help keep the Salvadoran economy afloat. In some years, remittances constitute two or three times the country’s public social spending. At a less aggregate level, remittances directly ensure the survival of migrants’ families. But most Salvadorans, especially those without family members remitting from abroad, remain poor.

The civil war left behind a militarized society with most of its population unable to earn enough to survive, creating fertile recruitment ground for drug cartels and various organized-crime groups. Furthermore, deportations of Salvadorans from the United States, which started in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s, significantly exacerbated violent trends in the country. Deportees included young Salvadorans who had formed gangs in the United States—their way of navigating life in inhospitable neighborhoods—contributing to a perfect storm that allowed these activities to proliferate back in El Salvador.

Today, levels of violence are even higher than during wartime and have enveloped entire communities. The overwhelming majority of victims are poor, working-class Salvadorans who must conduct their daily lives in some of the most dangerous areas and who cannot afford the private security companies that protect the well-to-do.

Notably, the context of violence seen today, facilely explained away as “gang violence” or as resulting from the deportation of gang members from U.S. prisons, has deeper roots in the expanding trends of inequality that started decades ago. These trends include the continued accumulation of wealth by a few, the implementation of neoliberal policies that slashed public spending, and an intransigent opposition to social reform that could benefit the majority of Salvadorans—who now turn to migration as the only option to survive. This context has contributed to maintaining a large flow of Salvadorans leaving the country, which in turn has had direct consequences for the economy: The labor pool has shrunk, and remittances have become one of the largest sources of foreign exchange.

Treatment of Salvadorans under U.S. Immigration Policy

Approximately half a million Salvadorans fled to the United States during the 1980s. However, just 2 percent of asylum applications filed by Salvadorans during the war were approved. Due to the heavy U.S. involvement in the Salvadoran conflict—providing extensive military support and aid to the Salvadoran government—the U.S. government was reluctant to extend protection to these asylum seekers because doing so would have contradicted its own foreign policy.

Without refugee status, most Salvadorans who fled the war and arrived in the United States were treated as unauthorized immigrants. In 1985, Central American immigrant organizations and churches filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to protest asylum policies toward Salvadorans (and Guatemalans, fleeing their own bloody civil war). This lawsuit, later known as the American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh (ABC) settlement, granted these immigrants the opportunity to reapply for asylum and receive a fair hearing. ABC also provided that they be given work permits while their cases were being adjudicated.

Under pressure from community and religious organizations and appeals from Salvadoran leaders, the United States included a provision in the 1990 Immigration Act that recognized the plight of people seeking protection without contradicting asylum policy. Known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), it allows foreign nationals from certain countries to live and work in the United States if they are unable to return safely due to conflict or natural disaster; Salvadorans were the first recipients.

From its inception, TPS was designed to be temporary, lasting no more than 18 months (though a country designation may be renewed). Unlike asylum or refugee status, TPS does not itself provide a pathway to permanent residency or other protections that formally recognized asylees or refugees can receive.

By 1992, approximately 187,000 Salvadorans had registered for TPS. That year, TPS for El Salvador ended and was replaced with Deferred Enforced Departure, which maintained temporary residence and work authorization for Salvadorans until September 1995. In 1997, section 203 of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act provided “cancellation of removal” and the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residence to some Salvadorans (along with Guatemalans and individuals from former Soviet countries) who entered the United States before September 1990 and had also filed for asylum under the ABC case. Nearly 200,000 Salvadorans and others have received green cards under this provision.

In 2001, after two deadly earthquakes hit El Salvador just two weeks apart, the United States again designated El Salvador for TPS, extending Salvadorans already in the country the opportunity to apply for this protection. The designation was consecutively renewed nine times, until the Trump administration announced that TPS will end for El Salvador in September 2019. Roughly 195,000 Salvadorans held TPS as of 2016, accounting for the largest share of all TPS holders, according to a U.S. government estimate. Salvadoran TPS holders have thus lived in the United States continuously since at least 2001—for most, at least half their lives—participating actively in the economy, establishing families, and building communities.

Beyond TPS, Salvadorans also take part in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program at high rates. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates 465,000 Salvadorans live in the United States in unauthorized status, making them the third-largest unauthorized group. As of January 2018, almost 26,000 young unauthorized Salvadorans were participating in the DACA program, or 62 percent of those eligible. This is the second-highest participation rate after Mexicans, according to MPI estimates.

Given the precarious nature of temporary protection programs, the small number of avenues to obtaining permanent status, and the U.S. government’s resistance to granting asylum to Salvadorans (past and present), immigration status has been a central feature of the Salvadoran immigrant experience. Many Salvadorans have been driven to migrate without authorization or seek asylum.

Contemporary Migration from El Salvador

Salvadoran migration to the United States has continued to grow in the last two decades, pushed by the violence, inequality, and poverty at home and pulled by the prospect of a better life in the United States or reunification with relatives there. The population of Salvadoran immigrants nearly tripled between 1990 and 2016 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Population of Salvadorans in the United States, 1960–2016

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 and 2016 American Community Surveys (ACS), and 2000 Decennial Census; data for 1960 to 1990 are from Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990" (Working Paper No. 29, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 1999), available online.

Smaller numbers of Salvadorans live in other destinations, primarily in North and Central America, Australia, and Europe. The top host countries other than the United States are Canada (51,000 Salvadorans), Guatemala (20,000), Costa Rica (14,000), Italy (13,000), and Australia (12,000), according to mid-2017 UN estimates.

For most Salvadorans seeking a reprieve from violence, migration itself entails another layer of danger. This trip involves traveling a long distance by land and crossing multiple international borders. Most Salvadorans lack a pathway to obtain a U.S. visa; they generally are not able to obtain employer sponsorship, and their family members in the United States are usually not economically or legally able to sponsor them.

Increasingly, crossing Mexico by land has become one of the most treacherous migration undertakings in the world. Central Americans fleeing the civil wars of the 1980s referred to the dangers of the Mexico passage as “trial by fire.” In 2010, the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico reported that 1,600 migrants (mostly Central Americans) were kidnapped each day on average, and approximately 10 percent of the 140,000 people who crossed Mexico annually perished on the journey.

The route is particularly dangerous for female migrants: Health professionals estimate that six out of ten Central American women and girls are raped during their journey through Mexico. These conditions have dramatically worsened as more vulnerable migrants pass through Mexico, and as drug cartels and smugglers work together to traffic humans and drugs.

The UN General Assembly published a report by its Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council in 2017 on arbitrary executions of refugees and migrants traveling through Mexico, pointing to collaborations between state and nonstate actors as responsible for killings, extortion, kidnappings, and a generalized regime of impunity.

Unaccompanied Minors and Family Migration

In 2014, U.S. authorities and media noticed an increase in unaccompanied youth—primarily from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, but also some from Mexico—and families arriving in the United States to escape violence and poverty in their countries.

While Salvadoran youth migration is not new, in recent years more young people have been leaving the country, given limited educational opportunities, lack of economic opportunity, the vulnerability of living away from parents in a context of endemic gang violence, and the large number of parents migrating. Some teenage migrants are parents themselves, heading north to support their own children. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, about 68,500 unaccompanied immigrant minors were apprehended at the U.S. Southwest border, a 77 percent increase from the year before. Of these, roughly 16,400 were Salvadoran, a nearly three-fold increase from FY 2013 (see Table 1). Further, about 68,400 families of all nationalities were apprehended in FY 2014, more than four times the number the year before.

Table 1. Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Children and Family Units from El Salvador at the U.S.-Mexico Border, Fiscal Year (FY) 2012–18

Note: Family unit data are unavailable for El Salvador prior to FY 2014. Numbers for FY 2018 are partial and represent migrants apprehended between October 2017 and June 2018.
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “Southwest Border Family Unit and UAC Apps,” (fact sheets, CBP, various years), accessed August 6, 2018, available online.

In response to this uptick, the U.S. government increased border enforcement efforts and opened a series of privately run detention centers for families (mostly women and their children) while their asylum cases were pending. Because of a court settlement requiring the care of children in the “least restrictive setting” possible, the U.S. government began releasing unaccompanied youth to relatives in the United States.

Further, under pressure from the U.S. government, Mexico has enacted a set of securitization initiatives at its border with Guatemala and throughout its territory. In 2014 it launched the Southern Border Program, which made crossing this border more difficult and life-threatening. Closely mirroring U.S. border policies, new Mexican policies have pushed Salvadorans and other Central American migrants into strenuous and dangerous terrains. 

Migration Policy Development in El Salvador

Since the 2000s, the Salvadoran government has created a series of programs to aid Salvadoran migrants abroad and promote their rights and protections. The government has come to recognize the significant contributions of Salvadoran migrants, as their remittances, investments, and skills provide a range of needed resources for the country. Thus, until 2018 it successfully lobbied the U.S. government to redesignate El Salvador for TPS, and actively campaigned in Salvadoran immigrant communities to remind beneficiaries to reregister for the program. In 2013, El Salvador passed a law allowing emigrants to vote in the country’s national elections from abroad.

The government has also turned its attention to engaging the diaspora for development purposes. In 1999, the Social Investment Fund (Fondo de Inversión Social para el Desarrollo Local, or FISDL) began focusing on Salvadorans abroad, encouraging diaspora organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and hometown associations to contribute to development projects back El Salvador. The program has helped build schools, recreation facilities, and health centers.

More recently, in the face of increased deportations, the government and NGOs have created programs to reintegrate returnees and ensure they find jobs that match their work experience. Growing call centers in the country, particularly those that require English skills, have attracted many deportees. However, the fact remains that El Salvador’s economy cannot absorb all the returning migrants, thus many plan an imminent return to the United States—particularly those who left behind children, spouses, and parents.

Salvadorans in the United States Today

In 2016, about 1,387,000 Salvadorans lived in the United States, making them the largest Central American immigrant group, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The Salvadoran diaspora numbers roughly 2,195,000, including those born in the United States to Salvadoran parents.

Among Salvadorans who hold TPS, most have lived in the country for two decades or longer, and all have been present since at least 2001 as required by the program. In this time, they have settled into communities across the country. Slightly more than half are men, and about 41 percent of all TPS-holding Salvadorans are married. Some 86 percent have children, and about 60 percent have children in the United States, many of whom are U.S. born.  

The vast majority of Salvadoran men and women with TPS are in the labor force—94 percent and 82 percent, respectively. The labor experiences of TPS Salvadorans vary, but most work in full-time jobs of 40 hours per week or more. Men commonly work in construction, transportation, and office-cleaning roles. Among women, the most common occupations are cleaning and child care.

Salvadorans with TPS are active in their communities: Almost 30 percent participate in neighborhood organizations, churches, schools, work associations, or sports teams. Most TPS holders (78 percent) report being able to gain a better job after receiving TPS, feeling more secure for themselves (67 percent) and for their families (roughly 38 percent).

Issues on the Horizon

Building on previous administrations’ policies, the Trump administration has ushered in a series of policy decisions that directly impact the Salvadoran population already in the United States as well as their families and would-be migrants at origin. It ended TPS for Salvadorans, a decision that will transform those who do not return to El Salvador from quasi-legal with work permits into unauthorized immigrants.

This situation portends serious consequences for Salvadorans and their families in the United States and for relatives back home, and will likely thwart prospects for El Salvador’s future stability. Though most of the nearly 200,000 TPS holders will likely choose to remain in the United States and move into the shadows, the end of the TPS designation may translate into the voluntary return or deportation of some to a country mired in violence and economic volatility that is unprepared to receive them, while dramatically reducing the remittances that have helped keep the country afloat since the end of the civil war. It could also entail the breakup of families, as returning Salvadorans decide whether to make the difficult decision to leave behind their U.S.-citizen children.

Further, the Justice Department under the direction of Attorney General Jeff Sessions determined that domestic and gang violence no longer constitute grounds for asylum, making it more difficult for many Salvadorans to obtain protection in the United States. And the administration launched a “zero-tolerance” policy at the border, prosecuting in federal court those crossing without authorization. This policy resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents, most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Because of these decisions, the protections available to some Salvadorans under previous administrations—for example in the form of TPS or grants of asylum—have all but disappeared.  

In 2017, the Salvadoran government launched the National Policy for the Protection and Development of Salvadoran Migrants and their Families (Política Nacional para la Protección y Desarrollo de la Persona Migrante Salvadoreña y Su Familia). This policy aims to meet the needs of Salvadorans at every stage of their migration journey—from predeparture, to migration, destination, and return. It remains to be seen how this framework will be implemented and what it may mean for Salvadorans en route, already abroad, or on their way back.

The factors that have propelled many Salvadorans to migrate over the past three decades persist and may have even intensified, and the forces pulling them to the United States remain strong. Thus, it is likely that in the absence of major changes in the country, Salvadorans will continue to migrate, despite life-threatening dangers on the journey and the many obstacles that await them as they enter the United States.

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