Return to the Migration Table: Why Migrate?

She came to the United States to study at a graduate school with a student visa.  Her husband and children remained in El Salvador.  After graduation, she got a job offer at a business which sponsored her employment visa.  Her husband also secured an employment visa and the family settled in a small city in the US.  The children were young and quickly became fluent in English.  The parents' English was already pretty good, and improved over time.  Eventually the parents applied for permanent residency.  There were times when the family resided in the US "illegally" or without current documents because their document renewal papers were stuck in a bogged-down system.  The family paid thousands of dollars to immigration lawyers to make sure they followed a correct process.  The mother became a naturalized US citizen.

This is one story of migration from El Salvador to the United States.  The pathways by which Salvadoran families establish roots in the US have been and continue to be numerous and diverse.  Since the time of the Salvadoran Civil War, Salvadorans have come by plane and by foot, seeking safety, education, work and The American Dream.  Conscription of children into military forces and threats from death squads during the war, devastating earthquakes in 1986 and 2001, Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the rise in gang culture and gang violence in the 2000's, along with economic crises along the way, are identifiable events or phenomena which have caused Salvadorans to migrate north.  Once established, family members attract other family members or friends with desires for unification or stories of success.  Families established themselves, with documents or without.

In El Salvador, just about every family has some relative living in the US.  Roughly 20% - 25% of living Salvadoran citizens live in the United States.  Salvadorans work in all different sectors of the US economy. Those without documents, find work in a variety of informal ways, and can suffer abuse by unscrupulous employers.  Salvadorans have a pretty strong reputation has hard workers, many holding down multiple jobs to earn enough to live in the US and send money home.  The river of financial support that flows from the US to El Salvador is a river of life which sustains Salvadoran families and makes money-transfer companies a healthy profit.

While economic survival or pursuit of The American Dream have historically drawn Salvadoran family members north, changes in US immigration law enforcement have diminished the desire to migrate for purely economic reasons.

I can't work because
the gangs will not let
me leave the house...
Over the last 15 years, the gangs in El Salvador have wreaked havoc in all sectors of society, but especially in poor communities.  The reasons behind their success are complex:  poverty, lack of opportunity for youth, a weak judicial system, corrupt policing, the US market for illegal drugs, organized crime.  Whatever the reasons, the reality is that threats, fear and acts of violence come in waves to small communities.  The police move to one place, and the gangs move to another.  In 2014, the level of violence and fear reached epidemic levels.  Families were forced to migrate from one community to another.  This internal migration (sometimes referred to as internal displacement or forced migration) is not well-documented with statistics.  People in the US who sponsor scholarship students in sister church communities in El Salvador might know a little bit more about internal displacement than your average US citizen, as scholarship sponsors frequently learn that their students are no longer in the church community or need to change schools or are living with relatives in parts unknown.
My mom sells but what
little she earns she has
to give to the gangs as rent...

I feel helpless because
of the impossibility of
doing something...
Four generations of the family lived in a small compound of cinderblock and laminate structures on a tiny lot in a small community outside the capital.  One adult brother had been threatened; he fled to the mountains; he came back; the family was threatened; the brother fled to the US; he was deported, and eventually he joined the gang.  The family tried to stay apart from the brother's activities. One night, a family member was dragged out of the house and murdered.  The brother became more imbedded in the gang.  One night, rival gang members broke down the door of the house and held a pistol to a teen girl and threatened young adult mothers in the home. The police came into the community and drove out the gang members, including the brother.  One night, the police pounded on the door and turned everything in the home upside down, looking for weapons.  The police threatened the family.  The family fled to an abandoned house in another community.  The police returned and burned what was left in the empty home.  The local Lutheran migration ministry team helped the family to put a roof on the abandoned house and to figure out who the owner was so they could get permission to stay there, and pay rent.

When the threats follow families from community to community, and there is no place left to hide, families make the difficult decision to send their young people north.  Witnesses to murders and victims of persecution by police make the decision to seek asylum in the US.  Family members established in the US try to help their family members who are endangered in El Salvador, sometimes working with the visa system, sometimes paying for a smuggler to bring their loved ones north, sometimes paying legal costs when their family members are in the asylum process.

The Salvadoran Lutheran Church Migration Ministry is working with the regional Migration Tables on a workshop which helps families to talk about migration issues in a safe space.  The pastor who coordinates the office of Migration Ministry wrote a book entitled Pasos y Hellas (Steps and Footprints - the Route of the Migrant.  The conversation points and illustrations in the book help families to identify the fears which exist in their communities.  The book raises up reasons for migration, discourages migration for economic reasons, describes the journey north and what it is like to be deported.  In a recent Migration Table workshop, my husband and I were trained on the use of the book, along with community leaders, pastors, police, and health workers.  We used drama to act out portions of the book, which made it very comfortable for everyone to then ask questions or share real life experiences.

In the plane they had us
chained from feet to
hands, worse than if
we were delinquents or
That which was the
American Dream before,
now is the nightmare
of Latinos...

 Illustrations and captions taken from Pasos y Hellas - La Ruta del Migrante ©2016 Sinodo Luterano Salvadoreño Pastoral del Migrante


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