E.g., 12/10/2023
E.g., 12/10/2023
Migration and Development in El Salvador: Ideals Versus Reality

Migration and Development in El Salvador: Ideals Versus Reality

What is the relationship between migration and human development for a country? This was the question the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in El Salvador confronted with its December 2005 human development report for the Central American country, which has seen high levels of emigration to North America since its civil war in the 1980s. The 10-chapter report, A look at the New 'Us': The Impact of Migration, is the most comprehensive analysis to date on El Salvador and migration.

UNDP starts with the idea that a nation's principal resource is its population. Thus, migration to another country is considered a drain on human development. In some cases, such as El Salvador, where at least 20 percent of the population lives abroad, this drain can be described as a hemorrhaging of the country's most valuable resource.

Yet the El Salvador report also analyses how migration has led to important improvements in human development. UNDP measures a country's human development with the human development index (HDI), which includes life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, school enrollment, and standard of living. According to their HDI, Salvadorans in the United States have obtained a high level of human development (0.851), much higher than that of Salvadorans who remain within their country (0.731) but still lower than that of native-born U.S. citizens (0.944).

At the same time, remittances — over $2.5 billion in 2004 based on Central Reserve Bank estimates — play a significant role in the national economy. Remittances are the single most important source of income, and are more than six times foreign direct investment (see Table 1). At the same time, on a microeconomic level, more than a fifth of all households receive remittances.

Evidence from the National Household Survey (EHPM — Encuesta de Hogares de Propósitos Múltiples, in Spanish) shows that Salvadorans abroad have helped their families at home improve their incomes and housing, ensure that children obtain higher educational levels, and provide a "retirement fund" for the elderly. On a national level, they have reduced inequality.

Table 1. Migrant Remittances and Their Importance Relative to Other Economic Indicators, 2004
Remittances (data for 2004) $2,548 million
% of households that receive remittances 22%
Remittances as a percentage of GNP 16%
As a percentage of all exports 133%
As a percentage of all imports 52%
As a percentage of foreign direct investment 655%
As a percentage of the National Budget 91%
As a percentage of social expenses 202%
Source: Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador

In fact, it can be easily argued that migration is El Salvador's principal gateway to globalization. And this is due not only to the volume of remittances but also to a myriad of other economic activities that have increased because of migration.

According to data from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, telephone calls between the United States and El Salvador rose 570 percent from 99.9 million minutes in 1992 to 669 million minutes in 2002 as families made use of increased access to land lines as well as cell phone expansion to keep in touch.

Information from the U.S. Bureau of Transport Statistics shows that air traffic between El Salvador and the United States increased exponentially from 123,846 passengers in 1990 to more than 1.3 million in 2004. The principal cities of destination (Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Houston, New York, and San Francisco) coincide with the largest concentrations of Salvadorans in the United States.

Linked to air traffic is ethnic tourism. Salvadorans who live outside the country and come to visit stay longer and spend more per day than tourists of other nationalities. According to the Ministry of Tourism, on average, Salvadoran visitors stay 19 days and spend $97 per day while other tourists stay only eight days and spend $87 per day.

Yet migration has enormous costs, both economic and social, and migration has transformed the country's communities, and not always for the better.

Background on Salvadoran Migrants

The number of Salvadorans residing in the country totals about 6.2 million. But it is estimated that anywhere from 817,000 to 2.7 million Salvadorans, or another 13 to 40 percent, live outside the country. While Salvadorans can be found in almost any part of the world, an overwhelming majority migrate to the United States (see Table 2). According to U.S. census data, they are predominantly of working age and a high percentage are women. In fact, analysis published in the UNDP report shows that Salvadoran women dominated migration flows to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

With the outbreak of civil war in the 1980s, not only did migration increase significantly, but men started to migrate in far greater numbers than women. Despite the onset of peace in 1992, migration to the United States has continued. Evidence from recent field work in 18 municipalities of El Salvador indicates that, after the earthquakes of 2001, young people from the countryside have been migrating to the United States at a faster rate than ever before.

Table 2. Estimates of Number of Salvadoran Migrants and Their Characteristics, 2000
Estimated number of Salvadorans in the Americas 817,000 to 2,680,000
% in the United States 90%
% in Canada 6%
% in Mexico and rest of Central America 3%
As a percentage of Salvadorans in El Salvador 13 to 40%
% in U.S. that are age 44 and younger 80%
% in U.S. that are women 48%
Source: U.S. Census, Salvadoran Foreign Affairs Ministry, Salvadoran Ministry of the Interior

At the same time, deportations of Salvadorans have risen from a total of 4,216 in 1999 to 36,689 in 2004, as documented by the Salvadoran Ministry of the Interior. From 1999 through 2001, the majority of these deportations came from the United States, but, as of 2002, the vast majority of deportees are returned from Guatemala and, even more importantly, Mexico.

Within El Salvador, major concern has arisen concerning the criminal activities of deportees, especially their affiliation with youth gangs (see National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs). Drug offenses, armed robbery, drunk driving, and domestic violence are also some of the other crimes deportees have committed. The growing debate around deportees and crime requires a deeper understanding of transnational relationships and migration. In some cases, deportees with serious criminal offenses may be more a product of U.S. society than El Salvador's, but this is clearly one public policy challenge that transcends borders.

Economic Costs

The financial costs of migration vary from migrant to migrant, depending on their socioeconomic status in El Salvador. "Middle-class" migrants are more likely to obtain a tourist visa and travel north on an airline ticket, either returning home before their visa expires or overstaying their visa and becoming undocumented.

The poorest migrants tend to pay the most, often embarking without proper documentation and few monetary resources in a journey that involves hitching a ride on a moving freight train or enduring rape and many other forms of violent crime in Mexico. Others are guided northward and into the United States by a network of coyotes that charge anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 for their services.

In order to come up with the funds, Salvadorans have proven to be extremely resourceful. Family and friends in the United States often help out, or livestock is sold and land titles mortgaged to cover this "investment."

Others resort to local microlending programs to finance migration, causing some of these programs to reevaluate loan amounts and criteria for lending. And while personal loans to pay the coyote are not part of the mission of these initiatives, which are designed to support small entrepreneurs, they have saved some families from foreclosure on their land or exorbitant interest rates coyotes charge.

Social Costs

Although much academic research has focused on transnationalism (the phenomenon of being part of two societies at the same time), families living in different territories and realities easily incur social costs that are not always discussed. Spouses live apart for extended periods of time; children and young people grow up in the care of extended family; and the elderly lose their network of family support.

One of the most striking changes in Salvadoran family life has been the shift from male to female-headed households. Nationwide, data from the EHPM shows that households headed by women have risen from 26 percent in 1992 to 32 percent in 2004.

The impact this has on a community can best be seen by comparing two municipalities. According to data from the EHPM from 2004, Concepción de Oriente, in the far eastern part of El Salvador, is the municipality with the highest rate of households receiving remittances (63 percent); Santa Catarina Masahuat, in Sonsonate department in the western part of the country, is the least impacted by international migration with less than one percent of households receiving remittances.

But the differences do not stop there (see Table 3). The poverty rate in Concepción de Oriente is almost half that of Santa Catarina Masahuat.

Even more striking are the demographic changes to these two communities. In Concepción de Oriente, for every 100 women there are only 76 men; the gap widens for those ages 15 to 24, to just 66 men for every 100 women. The masculinity index in Santa Catarina Masahuat is essentially one to one. Concepción de Oriente also has larger portions of younger and older people compared with Santa Catarina Masahuat, and almost three times the percentage of households headed by women.

Essentially, the migration of young men from Concepción de Oriente to the United States has meant that their families back home live in better homes and have more income. But it is altering the social and demographic composition of the community.

Table 3. Comparison of Remittances, Poverty, and Demographics in Santa Catarina Masahuat and Concepción de Oriente, 2004
  Santa Catarina Masahuat, Sonsonate Concepción de Oriente,
La Unión
Remittances and Poverty    
Percentage of households that receive remittances 0.6 63.0
Poverty rate 74.5 39.1
Masculinity index 1.02 0.76
Masculinity index (ages 15 to 24) 1.00 0.66
Percentage of the population under age 18 42.6 47.1
Percentage of the population over age 44 15.9 24.3
Percentage of households headed by women 15.7 41.5
Source: EHPM, 2004

The households that receive remittances may be less likely to face poverty, but migration does not appear to have led to an equaling of the playing field between men and women, since migration tends to reproduce social inequalities. Women and men still carry out traditional roles: men tend to be seen as the bread winners while women take care of domestic responsibilities.

What seems to be shifting are generational responsibilities as tasks that adults have been responsible for become part of the duties of older or younger members of families. Thus grandmothers, aunts, or sisters take care of young children, wash clothes, and prepare food while grandfathers, uncles, or brothers take care of things such as housing improvements and repairs.

Those inequalities have followed Salvadoran women in the United States, who still lag behind Salvadoran men in English proficiency, educational attainment, and income (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. English-Language Proficiency of Salvadoran Men and Women in the United States, 2000
Source: UNDP, 2005, Graph 2.5 based on data from PUMS 1%, 2000, U.S. Census Bureau
Figure 2. Education Levels of Salvadoran Men and Women in the United States, 2000
Source: UNDP, 2005, Graph 2.4 based on data from PUMS 1%, 2000, U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. labor market for Salvadorans is highly differentiated by gender; Salvadoran women continue to work in traditional gendered activities, namely cleaning services and child care, while Salvadoran men are employed in a wider variety of jobs, including construction, transportation, cooking, and gardening services.

What this essentially means for many Salvadoran households in the United States as well as El Salvador is that family decisions, discussions, and experiences take place between two countries, often with enormous difficulties and sacrifices. Children are raised by grandmothers or aunts while parents agonize over the choice they have made in leaving them behind; the elderly no longer have to work because they get remittances from their migrant daughters, but they do not have the emotional and physical support of their children; and as young people come of age, they face this period of enormous transition without the same sort of guidance that a parent might provide.

Economic Effects at the Local Level

Migration-related changes in culture and the structure of social life depend on the particulars of each community and evolve as international migration unfolds, sometimes at an astounding pace. In many parts of the country, for instance, rural life in is no longer synonymous with agriculture. Employment in the countryside is less linked to farming as structural adjustment has led to policies that have strangled the peasant economy, making it economically impossible for small farmers to produce beans and corn for the national market (see Figure 1).

Figure 3. Employment in Rural Areas (Thousands)
Source: EHPM, 1980, 1998, 2004.

In rural areas, remittances are used to purchase land and animals and to stimulate nonagricultural activities such as commerce and services; those involved in these activities have fewer ties to the land. Yet a large number of rural families still depend on the production of basic grains for their subsistence, and these are often the households without migrants. They depend more on the land but have less access to it, and the land that they do use is generally of very poor quality, which further deepens the processes of environmental degradation.

At the same time, dramatic changes in small towns can be seen in the materials used for construction of homes built with remittances. Even more dramatic are the changes in architectural styles and the use of space in some parts of the country, reflecting the influence of the U.S. labor market.

Many Salvadorans from the eastern part of the country live or have lived in the Washington, D.C. area, where they work in suburban home construction. They often build "replicas" in their communities back home as they plan for retirement. These homes include front lawns and gardens, back patio spaces, flush toilets, and hot water systems, sometimes in communities where running water is nonexistent. At the same time, land prices have increased, essentially making it next to impossible for families without remittances to realize their "American dream" in El Salvador without engaging in migration.

Social Effects at the Local Level

Families that do not have a household member working abroad and sending them remittances feel the pressure of ever widening gaps in social and economic status. So while remittances are closing economic gaps on a national level, on a local level they may be part of new processes of exclusion and inequality. A family living in a traditional adobe home may not be poorer but may feel poorer when a neighbor builds a two-story cinderblock house with numerous amenities, according to research by the Latin American social sciences organization FLACSO.

However, migration and remittances can also undermine already weak communities, generating a vicious cycle that drains the local economy of young people, its most valuable resource. Research in El Salvador has shown that young people are able to continue their studies partly due to remittances their families receive. The remittances provide financial stability, allowing children to stay in school rather than go to work.

Yet, in obtaining a higher level of education, their aspirations also change; they do not wish to live the peasant lifestyle of their parents but rather they aspire to professional jobs. However, opportunities for work and better pay remain essentially unchanged. The façade of their community has changed but not the economic opportunities.

Further complicating the picture are the flow of information and social networks that make migration possible. For example, young women in northern El Salvador who have friends or family living in Washington, DC, are more likely to find a job there than they would in San Salvador. The social networks linking them to the United States are probably stronger and denser than their connections to other parts of the country.


The migration-induced changes taking place in El Salvador today are profoundly transforming the country's economy and society. Yet over the last two decades analysts and policymakers did not sufficiently take into account the impacts, and thus continued to plan for a country that no longer exists. Essentially, El Salvador cannot be understood as a country of 6.2 million people living in 21,000 square kilometers, but rather as a nation with more than eight million citizens living inside and outside the national borders.

Many policymakers continue to try and find ways for migration and remittances to develop immigrant-sending areas, especially on the local level. The UNDP El Salvador report concludes, however, that migration and remittances can contribute to local development (and in fact are already doing so) but they cannot be the motor that drives either the national or local economy.

In short, migration processes alone cannot solve all of El Salvador's economic problems. Local and national development requires local agendas for improving the social, cultural, political, and economic fabric of a community.

Return migrants can contribute with skills learned abroad, and migrant associations in the United States can make investments that stimulate local economic activity or support social services such as education, health care, and recreational activities. The challenge is ensuring that all Salvadorans, not just households with migrants abroad, can benefit from improvements.


FLACSO, 2005 "Informe Final Resultado 3.1: Efectos de la Migración en las Expectativas Laborales de los Jóvenes Escolarizados en Cuatro Municipios de Pobreza Severa en El Salvador". Informe preparado para el FISDL.

UNDP, 2005. Informe sobre desarrollo humano El Salvador 2005: Una Mirada al Nuevo nosotros. El impacto de las migraciones. San Salvador, UNDP.