Report From El Salvador

When I recently returned to the United States–after spending six months in El Salvador–I discovered that one thing hadn’t changed during my absence. Presidential candidates from both major parties are still calling for “securing our borders” by deploying more guards and building a bigger wall between the U.S. and Mexico. To drive immigrants back home, most White House hopefuls also favor a legal crackdown—which the Bush Administration has already begun—on the 12 million undocumented workers trying to make a living here.


The theory behind this bi-partisan approach is that physical barriers, police interdiction and harassment, workplace raids, and employer sanctions will stem the vast human flow to los Estados. On the Republican side, even John McCain—who incurred the wrath of fellow conservatives last year when he sponsored legislation they deemed too “soft” on immigrants—has now shifted to what The Wall Street Journal calls “a border-security-first formulation.” Among Democrats, only New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson questioned the efficacy of higher fencing–but even he and John Edwards, now also departed from the race, called for beefed up border-patrolling instead.


Having just spent time south of the border in a poor country whose major export is people, I’ve seen first-hand what’s driving this “illegal immigration”—and why conventional political solutions aren’t going to deter desperate Salvadorans from coming to the U.S. Largely missing from this year’s campaign is any serious reappraisal of our foreign, military, and trade policies that have forced millions Latin Americans to uproot themselves and seek opportunities for a better life far from home. In fact, as journalist David Bacon points out in his forthcoming book, “Illegal–How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants,” the whole process that displaces these people and pushes them north is “outside the parameters of political debate.”


On the presidential campaign trail, even free trade critics provide little public education about the link between corporate globalization, trade deregulation, and the resulting forced relocation of people, in both hemispheres. For example, while courting blue-collar workers in farm states and the rust belt (often one and the same these days), Edwards frequently denounced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—and its new Central American counter-part, CAFTA—as “trade laws that send American jobs overseas.” In Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio, free trade has fallen into disfavor because it threatens local manufacturing in rural communities already so economically depressed that some are becoming depopulated. As Lorri Brouer, a middle-aged Iowa Falls gift shop owner, asked a Boston Globe reporter in January: “Who’s going to turn off the lights when we grow old and die, because all the young people are going away?” But, as The Globe reported, rural voters are just as apt to blame foreigners for their economic woes, as job-killing free trade deals. “We’ve got illegal immigrants working in our chicken and hog factories!” fumed Janice Bahr, a 63-year old Iowa Falls Dairy Queen employee. What Democrats—including Edwards—have failed to explain is why these newcomers are here and what they share in common with native-born casualties of neo-liberalism.


In my recent travels in the Salvadoran countryside, I heard Lorri Brouer’s fearful refrain echoed in many small villages (where the absence of people between the age of 25 and 55 is often quite noticeable). In one remote farming community in Usulutan, the remaining campesinos were struggling to survive by grazing cattle and growing beans and corn amid cycles of flooding and drought. Most had settled in the region after being made refugees by El Salvador’s 12-year  civil war. Some had served as combatants against the government forces which received $4 billion in U.S. counter-insurgency aid during the 1980s. Because most residents still support the left, the conservative Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) government of Antonio Elias Saca has failed to provide needed agricultural assistance and social services (which are made available to friendlier constituencies instead).


The mother and father in the large family I stayed with proudly showed me middle-school graduation photos of their two oldest children. But their pride was mixed with sadness and regret.  Their son and daughter had both emigrated illegally to Houston after completing 9th grade (joining the 100,000 of their countrymen who flee every year).  With few employment opportunities locally–and not many in the capital city of San Salvador either—the youth of the town “turn fourteen, and then they all leave,” the woman explained. She pointed to the picture of her daughter smiling in her cap and gown. “When we talk on the phone she says she misses us. She cries and says she doesn’t like it there and wants to come home.”


This forced displacement of people—a human tragedy on a massive scale—is what Bacon calls “the real, dirty secret of trade agreements.”  Enacted fifteen years ago, NAFTA established a now familiar regional pattern. It has allowed U.S. grain companies “to dump cheap corn on the Mexican market, while at the same time Mexico was forced to cut its agricultural subsidies.”  Poor farmers in Oaxaca and Chiapas can no longer able to sell their crops at prices covering their production costs.  So they’ve joined the stream of six million Mexicans seeking work here. As Bacon notes, “they didn’t abandon their homes, families, farms, and jobs willingly. They had no other option for survival.”


Salvadoran economist Alfonso Goitia sees the same phenomenon occurring in El Salvador, where 40% of the workforce is still employed in agriculture. Out of a total population of six million, 750,000 Salvadorans became political or economic exiles prior to the 1992 peace accords ending the civil war. Today, two million live in the U.S. because–under a series of ARENA governments over the last fifteen years–El Salvador has embraced free trade, adopted the dollar as its currency, privatized public services, ratified CAFTA, and consigned a large percentage of the population to continued poverty and exploitation.


In the countryside, small farmers can’t maintain their own plots without government support or survive on the wages paid for day labor at larger farms. For those forced to seek work in urban areas, the choices aren’t good either. In the manufacturing sector, jobs are concentrated in high-security export zone factories with low wages, sweatshop working conditions, and union-busting multi-national employers. An effort last summer by SUTTELL, the telephone workers’ union, to organize women assemblers at ABX Industries, an electronic component-maker in San Bartolo, led to 30 of them being fired and then blacklisted, with the complicity of the Labor Ministry. As is often the case, the casualties of this campaign–when I met them in November—had been forced into the informal economy, joining the vast army of Salvadorans already peddling fruit, sneakers, toys, packaged snacks, and home-made food items at rickety roadside stands and in crowded central market places throughout the country.


One of the street vendors’ biggest product lines—pirated CDs and DVDs—is now making them a special target of local police, trained by the U.S.-financed International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador. Where the U.S. once aided and abetted “death squads,” it spends millions of aid dollars today orchestrating a crack-down on any would-be infringers on CAFTA-protected “intellectual property rights.” As Wes Enzinna reported in The Nation Dec. 31, a police raid on street vendor stalls in San Salvador last May triggered popular protests that were quelled only after the arrival of 150 riot cops, firing rubber bullets and tear gas.


Not surprisingly—given such a problematic urban and rural “job market”—I would regularly see large crowds of people at the American Embassy in San Salvador, waiting for hours with their documents in hand, to apply for some form of legal entry into the US. (A recent study by the University of Central America reported that 42% of all Salvadorans still living in their own country would leave for the U.S. if given the chance.) Whether you’re approved or not, the nonrefundable fee for the personal interview required to get a U.S. visa is $65–a hefty sum in a country where the monthly minimum wage is $157.  The lines of hopeful people who snake around the high outside walls of the castle-like embassy complex are now enclosed in their own adjacent structure, a kind of immigration bus depot (with a very limited number of tickets available).


When legal entry into the U.S. is thwarted, Salvadorans who can afford to sell any land they own or take out personal loans hire a coyote who charges $4,000 to $6,000 for unofficial immigration assistance. With or without such a “professional” guide, migrants are vulnerable to assault, theft and rape along the long overland route through Guatemala and Mexico. In 2006, the Central American Resource Center documented  hundreds of deaths and injuries among Salvadorans attempting to cross into the US on foot. While US newspapers report on local fears about Spanish-speaking invaders, the Salvadoran media regularly runs stories on children who disappear in the Arizona or Texas desert or young women who drown when their leaky boats capsize off the coast of Mexico. Meanwhile back home, family disintegration is a major Salvadoran social problem. Departing mothers and fathers leave their children in the hands of grandparents and other relatives; some kids grow up loosely supervised, feeling abandoned, and end up contributing to the country’s world-renowned “gang problem.” Everyone’s favorite local scapegoat, Salvadoran street gangs are indeed violent  and a feeder system for a national prison system filled to twice its capacity. And legitimate popular concern about street crime—which has many urban residents afraid to walk outside after dark—is easily manipulated by the right, to further its own Bush-inspired program of (civil liberties-infringing) domestic security measures.


Where President Bush and his ARENA allies are actually quite at odds is never publicly acknowledged. In Bush’s rosy world view, loyal members of the “coalition of the willing” not only send troops to Iraq (as President Saca did) to bring the benefits of free markets to the Middle East; they also keep folks down on the farm at home—instead of coming to the U.S.—by exposing them to benefits of unfettered domestic capitalism. In reality, El Salvador is heavily dependent on remittances– the earnings of hundreds of thousands of its citizens working abroad. In 2006, Salvadorans sent home $3.3 billion—which equals about 18% of the nation’s GDP. These remittances keep the economy afloat and, by cushioning the impact of  austerity policies imposed from abroad,  operate as a huge social safety valve.


With hard-earned dollars from the U.S. flowing to so many lower-income families and communities, there’s far less pressure on the government to tax the rich or corporations to pay their fair share of the cost of schools, roads, solid waste disposal, health care, and other public services.  In another town in Usulutan that I visited, a group of farmers proudly showed me the recently improved road connecting their fields to the closest markets; tired of waiting for public works assistance from the government, they had taken matters into their own hands and, with their own labor and funds–from children, siblings and others working in the U.S.—had done the necessary construction themselves.


Despite stepped up repression (in the form of new laws making various forms of political protest a potential “terrorist” act), Salvadoran social movements are also stirring. Their goal—and, hopefully, campaign platform, when the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) challenges ARENA in next year’s presidential election—is to reclaim the idea of national economic development, fueled by much-needed public investment. Last Fall, thousands of banner-waving Salvadorans marched in the capital to “Defend the Right to Water”—in a major anti-privatization protest aimed at averting a threatened corporate take-over of the country’s ailing public water system. On their heads, demonstrators balanced the colorful plastic containers that women and children  use to carry water on their long walks to and from wells, springs, and pumps in rural areas. Local speakers were joined by several North American visitors, including former U.S. Ambassador Robert White and Maryland legislator Ana Sol Gutierrez, who joined the call for expanded access to potable water. Unfortunately, only a handful of gringos currently share their understanding that publicly-funded job-creation, agricultural assistance, workers rights, decent roads and schools, and other basic services are exactly what’s needed to keep far more Salvadorans in El Salvador, where most would much prefer to be.



Alexandra Early is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University in Latin American Studies who worked in El Salvador for CRISPAZ, a cross-border solidarity and social justice group. She can be reached For more information on CRISPAZ, see

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