Most Americans may not recall our disastrous impact on El Salvador, a history that dates back 40 years. A recurring annual congressional budget item throughout the 1980s captures our involvement: approximately $1 million a day, for 10 years, to subsidize a war endured by the Salvadoran people.
Our ‘80s cold war mentality framed this roughly $3.5 billion in military aid as a firewall against international Communist expansion instigated by Moscow. Wealthy Salvadoran elites, depicting landless peasants’ push for land reform and relief from starvation wages as a Communist insurgency, were surely happy to have us finance their military repression.
U.S. citizens did not suffer. But Salvadorans experienced massive civilian deaths and widespread human rights abuse of the most gruesome sort. They struggle to this day with the devastating consequences of the war.
By the time of the 1992 peace accords, 75,000 civilians had been killed or disappeared. The country’s infrastructure and economy were in tatters. This is the traumatic history, our shared history, that set the stage for massive Salvadoran immigration to our shores.
Prior to 1960, according to Faren Bachelis’ book ” The Central Americans,” the U.S. was home to fewer than 10,000 Salvadorans. By 1980 there were 10 times that number. By 1990, close to 1 million Salvadorans had immigrated here. Our State Department refused to grant asylum status to the vast majority because we were unwilling to acknowledge these refugees as victims of our foreign policy.
This denial created our first wave of “illegals.” To appreciate the political nature of how we define “legitimate” refugees, contrast this rejection of Salvadorans’ applications with 1966 legislation granting permanent residence to every migrant who had left Castro’s Cuba.
The war’s end in El Salvador did not halt escalating migration. By 2010, according to some estimates, roughly 2 million Salvadorans had crossed the border without authorization. This continued post-war displacement was driven by a series of U.S. policy decisions that further heightened the devastation wrought by the war:
Much needed economic aid was tied to El Salvador privatizing its public resources and slashing social programs. These measures decreased access to basic services and shredded any remaining safety net.
The Central America Free Trade Agreement permitted a glut of cheaper foreign corn to flood the Salvadoran market. As a result, hundreds of thousands of subsistence peasant farmers could no longer feed their families.
And then in the mid-1990s, another destabilizing blow: Thousands of incarcerated Salvadoran youth who had joined Los Angeles street gangs were deported en masse back to their “home country” even though many had left as children. This transplant of U.S. gang culture to a country whose social fabric was already frayed created levels of violence now exceeding those during the war.
Ask Central American refugees at the border why they risked their lives to migrate, and they will answer in personal, not historical terms. They will likely recount death threats, murders of other family members, reprisals for resisting extortion demands, fears their daughters will be raped or sons conscripted by gangs, and no place to hide.
These ordeals reflect how policy decisions made even decades ago still bleed into the everyday lives of people now trapped and desperate.
Our inconvenient immigration truth is that we had a hand in creating the past and current exodus of Central Americans. Without knowing this history, we are susceptible to invented stories that we ourselves are somehow the victims of an alien invasion — an onslaught of thieves, rapists and gang members. On the contrary, those are the very dangers these refugees are fleeing.
A question to ask ourselves: How should we respond to a humanitarian crisis whose historical roots, in large part, were made in America?
Dennis Chinoy is a long-term volunteer with Power in Community Alliances (PICA) in Bangor, which has facilitated a 28-year-old sister city relationship between the city of Bangor and the village of Carasque, El Salvador.