“We know that our lives are at risk, but we have nowhere else to go. The police can’t protect us. … All we can do is trust in God.”
Editor’s note: Names of Salvadoran migrants in this article have been changed for their safety.
At a gathering for returned migrants in El Salvador, Eduardo listened as others shared their stories. When it was his turn to speak, his voice broke: “I lost hope that I would ever see my family again, nor did I think that I would receive help from a project like this one.”
That project is part of the migrant ministry of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, which accompanies families as they seek a better quality of life in El Salvador.
Extreme poverty often causes Central Americans to make the dangerous trip to the United States. In the coastal village where Eduardo and his family live, for example, fishing is a form of economic subsistence, but it’s not enough to make a decent living.
“When it reaches the point where all you can offer your children is tortillas with salt, something must be done,” said Adolfo Arrué, a community leader in Eduardo’s village. “So someone emigrates. Of the 175 families here, every family has at least one member living and working in the U.S.”
As soon as they find work, they send remittances. “It’s not a lot of money, maybe $100 a month, often less,” Arrué said. “But it keeps the rest of your family in El Salvador from going hungry.”
That’s why Eduardo emigrated a couple of years ago, a decision that almost cost him his life.
Like so many others, he contracted the services of a coyote (smuggler) to guarantee safe passage through Mexico. Early in the journey, the coyote demanded an extra $500 from Eduardo and his fellow travelers. If they didn’t pay, he said they would be handed over to the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel known for preying on migrants in transit. The Zetas’ ransom demands are higher; the penalty for nonpayment is execution.
Fortunately for Eduardo, three relatives came up with the $500 ransom. But he wonders what happened to the others. Those memories still haunt him, he said.
Start-up grants offer hope
Thousands of Salvadorans have a similar story to Eduardo’s.
While accurate numbers on those leaving the country are impossible to obtain, the General Directorate of Migration and Foreign Affairs (DGME by its Spanish acronym) says nearly 53,000 Salvadorans were detained and deported during 2016—close to 200 per day. Of that total, 17 percent were children, a number that has risen steadily since 2011.
The DGME is responsible for the repatriation of returned migrants, but it lacks funds to help them with the reintegration process.
Telma described her experience after being deported in April 2017: “[DGME] gave us two pupusas (typical Salvadoran food) and a talk. After that, they wished us well and sent us on our way.”
Both Telma and Eduardo have found new hope in the church’s migrant ministry. The Salvadoran Lutheran Church not only offers basic humanitarian assistance—food, medical care and psychological attention—it also attempts to address the economic desperation that causes the poor to emigrate in the first place.
One approach has been providing start-up funds for returned migrants to start microenterprises, a process that is slow and deliberate, said Lutheran pastor and ministry coordinator Blanca Irma Rodriguez.
“We don’t tell them what to do. Rather, they propose a business venture that they think will work, including how and where to start it,” she said. “By answering a series of basic questions, they soon realize whether their idea is viable or not.”
In Eduardo’s village, a range of enterprises are up and running: local stores, a fish processing business, the first unisex beauty salon, a bicycle repair shop, a plantain farm. All are owned and operated by returned migrants.
This project offers a viable alternative to the existing model of subsistence, emigration and remittances in this part of El Salvador. “The project’s motto is ‘To emigrate is not the answer,’ ” Arrué said. “It stops youth from only thinking about pursuing the American dream.”
“All we can do is trust God”
Elsewhere in El Salvador, the challenges faced by poor families—especially those living in urban areas—aren’t just economic. They confront threats, insecurity and violence in their homes, schools, workplaces and even churches. Much of it is related to gang activities.
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Extortion by gangs and other forms of organized crime is a daily reality in poor neighborhoods—areas where Lutheran congregations are located.
Juan, 16, lives with his mother in a gang-controlled neighborhood. They had been left alone until the gang ordered him to stop visiting his brother’s house in an area controlled by a rival outfit. Juan visited less but didn’t stop altogether.
In retaliation, the gang ambushed Juan’s brother while he was walking home from church. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds. For the next month, Juan’s family temporarily lived in hiding while his brother recovered.
“We know that our lives are at risk, but we have nowhere else to go,” Juan’s brother said. “The police can’t protect us. … All we can do is trust in God.”
Families like Juan’s—victims of violence who are one step away from emigrating—are turning to the Lutheran church for help.
While the country’s murder rate has declined, social violence persists, Rodriguez said, adding, “Three years ago, we only talked about gang violence. Today the police are also committing abuses in a nationwide crackdown on gangs. … Gangs responded by killing police officers. In retaliation, neighborhood sweeps have turned violent. All youth are targeted in police operations, including those trying to avoid the gangs. Now they fear the police as well.”
While the spiral of violence continues, Rodriguez and her staff persist. “We see the suffering of our people,” she said. “We can’t help everyone. But we accompany those who ask us for help and we know that we have saved lives. For their sake, we will keep working.”
The ELCA supports the migrant ministry of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church through its AMMPARO initiative. AMMPARO stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities. This holistic response to the migration from Central America was adopted by the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.