The Reality of Migration: A View from El Salvador

Voters will hear many promises from candidates this year about solving an “immigration crisis.” Most of the analysis will focus on stopping the flow of people migrating north from Latin America, and criminalizing both the presence of immigrants without documentation, and the US citizens who hire them and associate with them. There will be more suggestions of walls and fences, militarized borders and criminalization of migrants.

Looking north from El Salvador, one quickly realizes that there is no stopping this tide. The latest United Nations figures indicate that 1,070 people every day are leaving El Salvador for the trip north. This human flow is not a flow that will be stopped; it has been institutionalized and constructed into the societies of El Salvador, and of the United States.

For example, in 2007, Salvadorans working in the United States sent $3.695 billion back to El Salvador to family members left behind. This represents 18% of the Gross Domestic Product of El Salvador. The latest census data indicates that the population in El Salvador is about 5.6 million people, which means that almost a third of the population is living and working in the US, given that well over 2 million are in the US.

The figures are similar for all the countries of Central America. Remittances are 25% of Honduras’ GNP, 12% in Nicaragua, and 11% in Guatemala. (Mexican workers send home $25 billion a year, about 3% of the GNP. Some regions of Mexico, however, are highly dependent on the cash flow home, such as Michoacan, which receives $2.5 billion, over $600 per capita, a 16% share of the regional economy.)

The trip north is made in many ways, depending on your resources. For $10,000, one can get a custom, first class journey north, by boat or plane. For those with no money, a very difficult train ride north, hopping freight trains through Mexico is a commonly used route. An often cited fee for an overland trip north with a guide, called a coyote, is $6,500. What these numbers mean is that every day, millions of dollars are spent on human traficking, on the monetization of migration from a weak, dominated economy to the largest consumer economy in the world.

And economically, El Salvador is hurting. Bean prices have gone from $.60 a pound in June of 2007 to $1.15 a pound throughout the country and as much as $1.25 a pound in the eastern part of the country. Bread and milk prices are rising rapidly; gasoline is at least $3.60 a gallon. There is high unemployment, and the jobs available do not pay enough to justify the work. The minimum wage in the countryside is $85 a month; in the city, $174 a month. If a family is not receiving remittances from a family member working in the US, it is very poor.

I have been volunteering with an organization here in San Salvador, the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) that works with communities to develop local economies, baking businesses, natural medicine projects, poultry businesses, artisan groups. When people from the US contribute money, it often goes for scholarships, so young people can get through high school. It costs $300 a year to send a student to high school, and if the family income is $85 a month, a scholarship is necessary. The promise, the industry, the will to learn and progress is there – you can see it in the effort people make to attend school, to send their children to school, but it is not a given in El Salvador. It is no mystery that so many are sucked into the gang life, when the society provides so little in terms of opportunity. We work with communities that are struggling to build schools, so that they can send their children to grades 1 through 3. A school is not a right in El Salvador.

So, rather than work for between one and five dollars a day, if you can find the work, people flee north by any means possible. For those without thousands of dollars to pay a coyote, it means robbery, rape, perhaps death at the hands of those who prey on the refugee flow, or death in the desert of Arizona. Last year, I saw a movie at a museum in San Salvador, the Museum of the Word and Image. The movie was called “Asalto al Sueño”, or “Assault to the Dream”. It was directed by Uli Steizner, who shot it with a handheld camera on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. He documents the human sacrifice involved in this traffic, the weeks of waiting, the arduous train rides, the limbs lost on the dangerous rails, the humiliation of arrest and failure as one is shipped back on a police bus.

NAFTA and CAFTA have succeeded for the large corporations that have been able to penetrate markets and exploit the labor of Mexico and Central America. These treaties have cost hundreds of thousands of farmers in the region their land and jobs. They have created a maquila system that provides jobs, but at exploitative wages and horrible working conditions. The societal pressures generated by the so-called “free trade” policies that have been codified in these agreements have also made necessary the migration north to jobs that will sustain life.

After decades of encouraging the flow of humanity north, and exploiting the labor, the United States has decided to recoil in revulsion from the immigrant cycle. But we cannot go back. We will have to find a solution, or we will cause a social conflagration. There are 12 million affected by these policies, trapped in a cycle created by specific policies that have benefitted US businesses and the US economy greatly. I propose that the US allow workers to pass freely back and forth between any countries that have ratified free trade agreements with the United States. If the United States would simply accept the documentation of people as they pass, as is done in the European Union, there would be a flow back to home countries and the migration cycle would be healthy and contained. Our more draconian immigration policy is only keeping people in the US and criminalizing a human condition, breaking families and communities in an enforced separation.

The migration issue in 2008 will be framed by power politics. The human costs are enormous for those caught in the cycle of poverty, desperation and migration. How the people of the United States respond to the cries for more enforcement, more walls, more criminalization will define us as a nation as surely as the vicious policies we are pursuing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Joe DeRaymond lives in Pennsylvania and has traveled to El Salvador working with Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Joe, or visit Joe's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Hombe Viejo said on February 23rd, 2008 at 1:14pm #

    Claro, exactamente, pero…
    Please realize DeRaymond estimado, that the United States cannot accept the influx of all peoples who want to come! Either way there will be losses and bloodshed eventually.
    It is time the people in Central American countries fight even harder to control their own destiny. We in the United States cannot accept them here. Lo siento!

  2. Jerry D. Rose said on February 23rd, 2008 at 7:16pm #

    Mr. DeRaymond is exactly right; a solution to the “crisis” begins with the removal to barriers of movement of workers in the international labor market. CAFTA has “opened” countries like El Salvador for the free movement of goods produced by multi-nationals but left up the barriers to labor mobility. If we truly believe in the efficacy of the market place, why do we not allow workers to move to where there are jobs and move to other places as labor requirements change? There is no more sense to an immigration wall between Mexico and the U.S. than there would be to one between Florida and Georgia. Of course the other thing that has to be done is what the author is doing in his own way and to which CAFTA is profoundly opposed: improving the living and working conditions of central American countries so that international migrations for purposes of making a living will not be necessary. These are the two components, as I see them, of a rational as opposed to a totally insane immigration policy.

  3. cuchicho said on February 23rd, 2008 at 8:58pm #


  4. Mike Johnson said on February 24th, 2008 at 9:49am #

    12 million Hispanics and Indigenous in USA with guns, learned in 2nd grade their lands were stolen by the military industrial complex
    time for Revolution!
    Viva El Frente
    but best is to create jobs in El Salvador
    who wants to learn to fish to fill up your boat?

  5. ElBob said on February 24th, 2008 at 10:22am #

    The best solution for the future is to remember the past. Illuminate socialism in the US and the matter or illegal immigration will work itself out. If there were no socialist programs then there will be no reason for many to come. Those who come to work and are willing to contribute will be welcomed and will find gainful employment. This was the policy that worked for over a hundred years and still would if enacted. We can’t improve the situation until the problem is identified. The problem is socialism. When it did not exist in the US there were no immigration problems (healthcare, education, or otherwise). America has approved and enacted at least 6 of the 10 planks of the communist manifesto, and we’ve only begun to see the fallout. Immigration is going to look like child’s play compared to the problems that are on the horizon. The closer we move toward socialism (globalism) the further we get from the solution.

  6. Dark Angel Stereo said on February 24th, 2008 at 11:54am #

    I was born in El Salvador.

    All this saddens me a great deal.

    I still have fam there.
    is a great country with allot of undiscover magical places to tourist.

    I wish I new it more

    I am a Houston artist.

    Mr. Pharaoh free my people.

  7. Changeseeker said on February 24th, 2008 at 8:22pm #

    Beautifully, beautifully written. I’ve linked to this at Citizen Orange.

  8. No Puedo said on February 24th, 2008 at 10:37pm #

    The US doesn’t allow cross migration because those in the poor countries are meant to be used as cheap labor. Latinos are in the US “back yard” … you know where people keep their dogs. Corporations don’t place business in other countries to raise the standards of living there. The business is there to exploit resources from governments with no standards and send those riches back to corporate owners countries to keep those standards of living high. Their objective is to make money at lower cost. No, the corporations will not pay a living wage, if they were going to do that they would have remained in the US or Europe.

    So, its past time for Latin Americans to stand up and take destiny into their own hands or else stay in the “back yard”.

  9. Eric Walker said on February 25th, 2008 at 12:12am #

    One would think that after aiding in their civil war to kill 70,000 people and trying to abolish communism, the US would have a little more sympathy for Salvadoraneans. Its just ironic that we helped their Army send out Regan backed death squads and kill peasants or people that mattered, now we are offering them opportunity, and screwing their country over again. It is a complex issue and one that needs a lot of attention.

    What would you do if you were in there shoes? I mean really, wouldnt you go where the moneys at, get yours and for your family. What must it be like, what must it take, to flee your home and comfort- to go to a place where angry people dont want you, to not understand a language, risk being arrested, not see your family.

    If you are a temporary worker working here in the US, you have no visitation rights to go back to your country, if you leave you cant necessarily come back to the US. The messed up part is that Temporary Workers” arent residents or citizens, they cant vote. Yet they pay taxes just like everybody else.

    The other issue that is rarely heard in the immigration debate is political asylum cases. People from all over the world come to the US as political refugees, to seek asylum from civil war in their home country. Many of the people are former engineers, professors, doctors. I feel as someone living in the US, and even in LA, that I dont here more about these people, because they exist and there are a lot of them, and it is so often overshadowed by Mexico and job issues. If you had you and/or your families lives threatened you would flee too, and what better than the US. Only problem is, we don’t do what we say. Everybody is not created equal here and we don’t practice what we think we represent. Our government is not a voice for the people living and working in these United States. We just aren’t there on so many issues, it’s sad.

  10. Carlitos Buenischke said on February 25th, 2008 at 10:16am #

    Thank you Joe for this update and your work with CIS. I’ve seen figures of 700 Salvadorans leaving each day and now your figure, or rather, the UN’s, of over 1000. Do we have a good number as to how many are being sent back/turned back/come back to El Salvador? How can a country like El Salvador continue to lose hundreds of mostly youthful members each day and not soon see some devastating impacts in their communities?

  11. Eric Walker said on February 25th, 2008 at 7:12pm #

    I think they are starting to see devastating impacts on their communities. The gangs in the cities are the big problem in Salvador now, its just as violent as it used to be, and as Joe outlined crime is the highest in Central America.