Salvadorans forced to return home will face one of the most dangerous places on the planet
ll migrants have two lives — the one they are living now, and the one from before. In El Salvador, Rosa Maria was a sociologist. After fleeing to Long Island, N.Y., in 2002, she found work cleaning Manhattan apartments by day and fast-food restaurants by night. Her children have embraced the American dream. One daughter is studying to be a psychologist; her son is a journalist.
The Trump administration’s decision to end temporary protected status for about 200,000 Salvadorans will soon bring Rosa Maria’s second life to an end. Salvadorans were first granted TPS in 2001 after a large earthquake struck El Salvador, but the Department of Homeland Security now argues that the “original conditions” no longer exist.
As of September 2019, Rosa Maria — who lives, works and pays taxes in the United States — could be forcibly deported to El Salvador. She wonders what is waiting for her there and is terrified that all of her toil and suffering will be for naught.
The scale of Salvadoran migration to the U.S. is simply enormous. There are about 2 million Guanacos, as they are called, living abroad, or 1 in 3 Salvadorans, most of them here in the U.S. In 2017, migrant remittances from this country peaked at $400 million, accounting for roughly 17 % of El Salvador’s GDP. There are more than 13 daily flights from the U.S. to El Salvador, packed full of migrants visiting home with American products.
Not all Salvadoran migrants have enjoyed protected status. Since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992, the U.S. has deported massive numbers of Guanacos. Among them are so-called irregular migrants who served jail sentences in the U.S. The deportees quickly set up chapters of violent street gangs such as the MS-13 and Barrio 18 in fragile, postwar El Salvador.
Now people such as Rosa Maria will be thrown into the mix. El Salvador is a dynamic and beautiful country. But its cities and towns are among the most dangerous on the planet; criminal gangs are responsible for widespread extortion of businesses and horrific acts of violence on a daily basis. This is precisely why thousands of Salvadorans try to reach the U.S. every year.
Organized violence touches the lives of most Salvadorans. Interviews conducted by Doctors Without Borders in 2017 found that 40% of migrants deported from the U.S. had originally fled because of violence. The United Nations refugee agency documented more than 17,000 asylum seekers from El Salvador in 2016, a 76% increase from the year before.
Since the Trump administration’s announcement this week, a debate is raging in Salvadoran media over who is to blame for the revocation of TPS. It might be more productive for Salvadorans to ask themselves how prepared they are for their brothers and sisters, los hermanos lejanos, to return home.
Right now, the answer to that question is: not prepared at all. Salvadorans have relied on billions of dollars in remittances that are about to dry up. The government doesn’t offer much in the way of returnee services beyond a hotline and reception centers. Small local organizations chip in, offering grants to start small businesses, or certification courses so returnees can market the skills they’ve picked up in the U.S. Local churches and human rights organizations also offer some assistance to those who fear for their lives and need to relocate. It isn’t much.
Deportees interviewed in 2017 by Cristosal, a local human rights organization, said they would rely on their families for help with reentry, putting a strain on already-poor communities. Many migrants will find themselves ensnared in the same life-threatening conditions that caused them to flee. The deportados may face stigmas as well: Employers may assume they have criminal records, like previously deported Salvadorans, and prefer not to hire them for the scarce jobs available.
Overall, deported Salvadorans will have to fend for themselves. At least that’s a skill they have honed after many years of working, saving and surviving under precarious circumstances in the United States.
Isabel de Sola is the founder of Foropaz, a platform for Salvadorans seeking peace.
Robert Muggah is the research director of Igarape Institute.