Bangor has had a sister city relationship with Carasque, a small, rural community in El Salvador, for nearly 30 years. Affiliated with the international organization U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities and initiated in the 1980s by the local grass-roots nonprofit Power in Community Alliances, that relationship involves yearly delegation trips, regular communication, and ever-deepening personal relationships. We at PICA believe that gives us a perspective on the current immigration situation worth sharing.
First, a brief history of U.S. involvement in El Salvador: In the 1980s the U.S. financially supported the repressive Salvadoran government’s war against its citizens in a misguided notion that we were helping fight communism. Thousands of citizens were killed in the decade-long war; local villages and infrastructure were devastated. Afterward, left with little means of supporting themselves, many people headed north to try to make a living in the U.S. Struggling local economies were further impacted by trade agreements such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, permitting American companies to flood the country with subsidized corn, a staple of every Salvadoran meal and a commodity small farmers traded for clothes, medicine and other goods. Unable to compete with cheap American corn, more Salvadorans headed north.
Many young Salvadoran males ended up in large cities like Los Angeles where, alone and vulnerable, they became ripe targets for gang recruitment. After the widespread 1992 riots in Los Angeles in response to the Rodney King verdict, tighter policies were put in place affecting Central American migrants, bringing instant deportation for even minor offenses. When those Los Angeles gang members returned to El Salvador, they recreated their gang culture, which has thrived in a country suffering from poverty and the lingering upheaval from the war.
Those gangs have become the current driving force of immigration. On PICA’s most recent delegation visit to El Salvador, in 2018, we met with many individuals and organizations working on this problem and heard repeatedly that violence is endemic. Families and businesses are extorted, forced to pay fees or threatened with violence and murder. Children as young as five can be conscripted by the gangs and forced to work as lookouts, couriers, or messengers.
While women and girls are particularly vulnerable, no one is safe, and there is nowhere to hide in a country the size of Massachusetts. Local police and government officials, under-resourced and often corrupted, are no match for the gangs.
Today, people are literally fleeing for their lives. Some leave as individuals, some hire a coyote (smuggler), others band together into so-called caravans. The unifying cause of their flight is fear of gang violence; extreme economic deprivation is the secondary cause. So when we hear government officials chastising Central Americans for exposing themselves and their children to danger on the journey north, we understand that while those risks are serious, the dangers of staying behind are greater.
Arriving at our southern border, these people present themselves as refugees and ask for asylum. It is important to understand this is a legal procedure, recognized in U.S. and international law; requesting a hearing is their right. Yet some U.S. officials continue to refer to these people generally as illegal and have treated them inhumanely, detaining some, tear gassing others, and separating parents from their children in numbers, as we have recently learned, far greater than was initially acknowledged.
Words like “ crisis” characterizing the border situation represent a manufactured ploy to appeal to the Trump administration’s base. Indeed, the government’s own statistics show that illegal border crossings have been in decline for the past two decades.
Rather than construct an ineffectual wall, and at far less cost, we could dispatch more immigration officials to expedite the vetting process. More health care and social workers could alleviate some of the trauma of innocent people whose only desire is for safety and security. This approach would recognize that poor, frightened immigrants pose no threat to us while also reflecting the generous humanitarian values we uphold as individuals and espouse as a nation.
Joan Ellis of Hudson is a member of Power in Community Alliances. She traveled to El Salvador in 2018.