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.