Confronting the Past: Understanding El Salvador's Child Migration Crisis

by Katya Rodriguez

As a first generation Salvadoran-American, I have always been interested in understanding why my grandmother decided to send her two teenage daughters to the United States. I have learned that the civil war that plagued my parents’ home between 1980 and 1992 forced many grandparents and parents like mine to face the same difficult question that confronts many families still today: whether it is necessary to send their children to the United States in order to protect them from being victims of violence. The Salvadorans who fled to the U.S. to escape the horrors of the civil war have much in common with the unaccompanied children who migrated to this country in historic numbers this past summer and have since become another part of the large undocumented population living in the shadows. The parallels are striking and discomfiting. Parents are trying to save their children from becoming victims of, or being enlisted by, violent gangs. They are trying to ensure them access to their basic human rights, such as education. And young people are seizing their own agency, deciding to make the difficult trek to reunite with their families or avoid violence in their own homes. They are risking their lives to try to save them.

There are a number of historic, deeply rooted issues that have increased the instability and severity of the violence in Central America. This article will discuss the complex recent history of El Salvador, how the violence of its Civil War continues to echo in the country today, and what lessons our immigration policy during the Civil War can teach us about appropriate policy responses today. This article will also argue that, for basic humanitarian reasons, it is critical that the United States provide at least basic social services to these vulnerable children. If American policymakers do not address the underlying reasons driving Salvadoran migration—something they failed to do in the 1980s—the violence plaguing El Salvador will persist, and its citizens will continue making the difficult decision to seek refuge in the US.

Push Versus Pull Factors

Despite the parallels with recent history, many U.S. policymakers still question why thousands of youth are so suddenly fleeing their home countries in Central America. At a congressional hearing last year, some congressmen charged that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA)—a policy that defers for two years the removal of individuals who arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen and are attending, or have graduated, high school—is a major “pull-factor,” enticing more children to enter the United States. Republican Representative Matt Salmon (AZ-05) claimed rumors that DACA will provide all children “permisos” to stay in the U.S. had spread through Central America. Republican Representative Sean Duffy (WI-07) called on President Obama to make a public pronouncement that the border was in fact closed, arguing it was the only way to persuade children not to migrate. Money is being poured into campaigns highlighting the grave consequences and difficulties faced by individuals who attempt to cross the border.

These charges overlook the much more important “push factors” that are driving children to seek refuge in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has reported that most of the children are traveling from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Not surprisingly, these countries have the first, fourth, and fifth-highest murder rates in the world, respectively.

These statistics are consistent with findings from research I have been completing for the past two years, and events I witnessed during my time in visits to El Salvador. This past summer I worked with Clínica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero in Los Angeles, named after the beloved, martyred Salvadoran archbishop.[1] In conversations with local community members, it became very clear that the same environment that caused its founders to flee El Salvador twenty years before—terror, inequality, and violence—was causing the huge increase in migration today. When I traveled to El Salvador this past summer to assess the reality Salvadorans face as part of my work with Clínica Romero, I learned that no single policy or public statement would solve this dire situation. Rather, I saw that the dangers children face in their journeys to the United States pale in comparison to the dangers they face at home. Having also visited El Salvador the year before, I was shocked by how much had changed. The military now occupied nearly every building in San Salvador’s central market, bearing automatic weapons. Most striking was the seemingly complete disappearance of young men, who usually crowded the market. One mother of two teenage boys told me it is too dangerous for them to visit the central market and they generally do not leave the house. Christian, her 14-year-old son, had been attacked by nine young men while attempting to buy food at a stand less than a block away from his mother’s stand. The attackers stripped off his clothes to see if he had any tattoos signifying gang affiliation. Her 18-year-old son, Douglas, graduated high school last year but has yet to find a job. Given the significant risk of being attacked by gang members if he were to leave the house to find work and the dangers faced when using public transportation, she prefers he stay at home.

It is also important to acknowledge that children are not leaving their homes for the United States only at the behest of their parents. Many are leaving under their own power and agency, to escape parental abuse or reunite with family members in the U.S. The UNHCR’s Children on the Run reported that 21% of the children interviewed from El Salvador reported surviving abuse and violence in their home at the hands of their caretakers.[2] Additionally, the Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that 85% of children who make the journey have been reunified with their families in the U.S.[3] El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that as of 2011, approximately 12% of Salvadoran children were growing up without one or both parents due to migration. Through interviews with some of the children living in El Salvador, researcher Leisy Abrego documented the negative effects of such circumstances on how children perform in school, develop their goals, and integrate into society.[4]

Understanding a Long, Violent History

The Salvadoran Civil War lasted from 1980-1992. It was fought between the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which was supported by the US government with a total of $5 billion in economic and military aid,[5] and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Named after a leader of an attempted indigenous revolt in 1932, the FMLN was a coalition of guerrilla groups that aimed to unseat the country’s ruling power and restructure the economy for the benefit of the country’s poor majority.[6] The Civil War should be understood as part of a long history of protests by those excluded from the small circle of economic and political interests.

ARENA was the party of right-wing military officers, paramilitary operatives, and conservative members of the traditional oligarchy.[7] ARENA’s paramilitary groups are accused of coordinating the infamous assassinations of Archbishop Monseñor Oscar A. Romero during Mass in 1980, six Jesuits at the University of Central America, political advocates, and an untold number of massacres against rural Salvadorans, such as those at El Mozote where almost 1,000 innocent men, women and children were killed.[8]

The Effects of Persecution and an Unwelcoming New Home

The violence that still plagues El Salvador is a residual phenomenon of the country’s Civil War. Historian and author of Violence and Terror Among Salvadoran Families in the Postwar, Julia Dickson-Gomez, argues that the expectation of violence, the pervasive mistrust in one’s neighbors, and a profound disillusionment with politics are traits of trauma that have been transmitted from generation to generation following the Civil War.[9]

This breakdown of trust and community is further complicated by the deportation of gang members to El Salvador during the 1990s. The risks faced by all Salvadorans during the Civil War, and in particular by young men, drove many to seek refuge in the United States during the 1980s. Salvadorans attempting to begin a new life in the United States rarely came to the country together as a family. Usually, the parents arrived first, splitting nuclear families between borders. Once they saved enough money, the children were brought to the U.S. They were then introduced to the new life their parents had formed, sometimes learning that they had new American siblings they had never met before. Children who traveled to the United States experienced the severe culture shock of their new homes and their parents’ American realities, changes many children had a difficult time understanding and accepting.

As is true for many migrants, Salvadorans who have recently arrived in the United States face limited economic opportunities and significant discrimination. Other Latinos already living in the area, mostly Mexicans, did not accept Salvadorans. Young immigrants were the most affected by discrimination. They sought community and understanding through informal social networks of fellow Salvadorans that later transformed into dangerous gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha.[10]

At first, these informal social networks were unofficial groups of friends who simply came together in different neighborhood corners to spend time together and participate in activities typical for youths their age. In the 1990s, members of the gangs became heavily involved in violent and drug-related activities. Since many of the members were undocumented, immigration policies were enacted that directly targeted gang members and facilitated their deportations. Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (1996), prosecution of non-citizens for drug trafficking offenses increased from 1,799 in 1985 to 7,803 in 2000.[11] By 2003, the total number of criminal deportations to Central America had increased to 5,905. El Salvador received 1,982 deportees with criminal records, the most of any country. Many of the deportees that arrived in El Salvador did not have family in the country, since family members had fled to the U.S. in the 1980s. Without any safety social net, supportive services like mental health, counseling, education or integration programs, or support from family members, the deportees again became involved in gangs. Recruiting new and more members, the gangs replicated and spread what they had started in the United States.

It is critical that proper social safety net programs, such as health care and proper legal representation, are provided for this new wave of unaccompanied immigrant children to ensure their successful integration, and help them avoid the same obstacles and challenges that the youth faced during the 1990s.

Moving Forward

El Salvador’s long history of political suppression, violence, and gangs has aggravated the crisis in which the country currently finds itself. El Salvador’s road to reconstruction is not easy. The country must address many interconnected and complex issues, especially the terror produced by gangs and the impunity with which they operate.

When dealing with the current humanitarian crisis, the first concern is whether the children are deported or remain in the United States. If they are deported, it is important to acknowledge that they are returning to countries where they will be at risk, and question what protection they may have. Instead of providing substantial military aid to these countries, the U.S. should focus on investing in social and economic development that supports youth development programs and education, and addresses poverty. If the children stay in the U.S., integration programs are needed to help them identify and build productive social networks so they may avoid relying on dangerous and informal social networks such as gangs.

Central American children are fleeing to the United States to attain basic human rights protected by the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights: life, liberty and security of person, education, and asylum from persecution. As a nation that identifies so deeply with the value of these basic rights, we must work to ensure that these children have opportunities to access them. Moreover, given our historical involvement in El Salvador’s Civil War and support for its government, the United States will forever be implicated in the country’s instability and its struggle to free itself from violence. Not only must the U.S. humanely address the crisis of unaccompanied refugee children, we have an obligation to proactively support El Salvador’s government in successful and peaceful development. This is also the most effective strategy for addressing the United States’ concerns around immigration. If we do nothing to solve El Salvador’s underlying problems, violence will continue to plague its citizens and they will continue to seek safety and peace elsewhere.

[1] The clinic views health care as a right everyone should have, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or immigration status. It was established in 1983 by Salvadoran refugees fleeing the Civil War to fill the void of social services available to the newly immigrant group. Clínica Romero provides quality, affordable, and culturally sensitive health care and other services to the uninsured and underserved communities in LA.

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection.” The United Nations Refugee Agency, 2014.

[3] United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Unaccompanied Alien Children Program Fact Sheet,” May 2014.

[4] Abrego, Leisy. Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders. Stanford University Press, 2014.

[5] Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador” Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[6] Murray, Kevin, and Tom Barry. Inside El Salvador. Interhemispheric Resource Center, 1995.

[7] Murray, Kevin, and Tom Barry. Inside El Salvador. Interhemispheric Resource Center, 1995. (NOT SURE IF PMJ USES I-BID IN END NOTES)

[8] Danner, Mark. Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

[9] Dickson-Gomes, Julia. (2002). The Sound of Barking Dogs: Violence and Terror among Salvadoran Families in the Postwar. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 4. pp. 415-438.

[10] Ana Arana. “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 3, May/June 2005, p. 98.

[11] Urias, Laura. “Homegrown in the Streets of the United States and Exported to the Barrios of El Salvador: The Deportation of Gang Members.” How. Scroll: Soc. Just. L. Rev. 8 (2005): 1.


Katya Rodriguez is a second year MPP at the Goldman School of Public Policy.