While this event has become a crisis for some in the U.S., it is an old story for Salvadorans. Refugees and smugglers have made the journey on the well-traveled trail through Mexico for decades, from the Cold War to the drug war. “This is not [just] a phenomenon,” Salvadoran Ambassador Rubén Zamora said, “It is a system… And like any systemic phenomenon, it does not have just one cause or a simple, unilateral solution.”
Financial and political elites in the Northern Triangle states have historically failed the vast majority of their populations, tacitly encouraging youth and adults to take the treacherous journey north, for underpaid jobs and to send remittances home. The hard-earned dollars not only support their families in their home countries but through the purchase of consumer goods further enrich the wealthy and prop up weak governments. By washing dishes, caring for children, and other menial jobs in the U.S., Salvadorans have sent billions of dollars home in recent decades. As Ambassador Zamora noted, many of them are now earning enough money to send for their children. For immigrant parents and desperate children, reunifying the family is the reward for years of separation and of hard work.
The recent wave was sparked by rumors of “permisos,” permits, for children and attributed by many to gang violence in the communities of origin. But, the reality is much more complicated than just gang violence. Deported children will not be returned to “certain death” as some fear, but yes, they will return to the impoverished and violence-ridden communities they fled. These smallest immigrants are the children and grandchildren of the lost generation of Salvadorans who fled violence and poverty in the 1980s and 90s; they are the much-discussed “at-risk youth,” another generation lost, left behind in poverty, in precarious communities, often in the care of relatives and often in abusive situations.
For the children, the choices are to emigrate, join a gang as a form of survival and social protest – or quietly accept their lot in life. The so-called “danger” advertising campaigns sponsored by USAID and others in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are unlikely to deter most families from taking the risk of migrating; the dangers are well known.
The border crisis crystalized the polarizing, decades-long immigration debate in the U.S. and the intersection of poverty, violence, the desire for a better life, and family reunification in the three countries. The U.S bears a burden of responsibility, but the wealthy in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are also culpable and must step up, pay taxes, and invest in their own countries instead of elsewhere.Read the rest of the El Salvador Update here including news on the security and political fronts.