Protesters at "A Day Without Immigrants" March and Rally

Protesters at “A Day Without Immigrants” March and Rally

The political conversation today is rife with debate surrounding immigration. Whether legal or illegal, many immigrants threatened by the actions of the Trump administration have lived and worked in the United States for decades and have built families and careers here. While there is a burgeoning “Here to Stay” movement fighting for immigrants’ right to remain in the United States, there is little discussion about how to change the dangerous conditions that forced these immigrants’ out of their countries of origin in the first place.

Since their country has the highest number of TPS recipients in the United States and one of the highest homicide rates in the world, immigrants from El Salvador are some of the most concerned about the recent changes in US immigration policy. While there has been some progress in El Salvador in recent years, this mountainous little country has a long way to go before its citizens feel safe and comfortable enough to stay rather than flee. The American government can take some steps to make El Salvador a safer place to live, but these steps will only have an impact, if taken in conjunction with action by the Salvadoran government.  

Issues at Hand

From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador endured a bloody civil war between the government and Marxist guerrilla groups. In his book The Salvador Option, Russell Crandall describes how this war became an international issue when Cuba backed the most notorious of the guerrilla groups, the FMLN, and the United States consequently gave over $6 billion in aid to the Salvadoran government in an effort to stop the spread of Communism in Central America. The war ended with a truce in 1992, but not before a quarter of the Salvadoran population fled the country.

According to most experts, the Civil War was the beginning of the end for El Salvador. Many refugees of the war came to the United States, where they were marginalized and disadvantaged. Facing challenges such as a language barrier and low levels of education or skill, Salvadoran immigrants found it difficult to climb the socio-economic ladder. Instead, they began to imitate the behavior of the street criminals that surrounded them, and thus formed gangs.  

“In the ‘90s, after the end of the war, many of these people were deported,” Manuel Meléndez, a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in the intersection of political parties and the politics of violence in El Salvador, described in an interview with the HPR. “Many of them came back with limited skills…their primary skillset was essentially belonging to and running a gang, and so in a sense, this was a problem that was imported back into El Salvador.”

Contrary to popular belief, the gangs have not survived for so long in El Salvador simply due to the law enforcement’s lack of incentive to stop them. These gangs often take the place of the government and provide protection, a sense of belonging, and economic opportunity. Unfortunately, they do so through protection rackets, extortion, or the drug trade. While this is obviously not the ideal way to provide these things, many Salvadorans would not receive them were it not for the gangs. This important point often goes overlooked when examining the structure and power of Salvadoran gangs. Groups like the infamous MS-13 are not sophisticated or highly organized. For all intents and purposes, they are social institutions that function as substitutes for El Salvador’s weak political institutions.

“The gangs of El Salvador cannot be compared to drug cartels or organized crime—they are definitely not that,” Celia Szusterman, a trustee for the British NGO Pro-Mujer and expert on El Salvador, emphasized in an interview with the HPR. She emphasized that an incorrect understanding of the gang problem would ultimately prevent its resolution.

Harvard Government professor Steven Levitsky seemed to agree with Szusterman’s analysis. “[El Salvador’s] state institutions are under strain, and they’re clearly not able to provide adequate services for the bulk of the population. Wherever you see a large number of people either joining criminal organizations or collaborating with criminal organizations, you can be pretty sure that they’re not getting their needs met by the state.”

According to Meléndez, the competitive, election-focused party system in El Salvador bears most of the blame for the state’s ineffectiveness by prioritizing political motivations over the real needs of the country, especially with regard to criminal policy.  

“To me, the political parties dimension is a huge part of the lens through which governments see the gang problem,” Meléndez commented. He explained that as the leaders of their parties, Salvadoran presidents were obligated to ensure that their parties thrived in elections. To do this, presidents pursued criminal policies that nominally appeased the electorate, but that were not necessarily the most effective or pragmatic solutions to the gang problem.

Meléndez also went on to say that although most people believe collusion between gangs and political officials occurs primarily at the national level, it actually occurs most often at the local level. “When you look at instances of the government and gangs…acting together, there are some instances that are clearly at the highest levels, but in fact, the most common way this happens is at the local level,” Meléndez asserts. “I’ve spoken to mayors of small towns who, because of internal party dynamics, simply don’t get enough support and resources from the centralized party.” Without adequate resources from the upper echelon, these local politicians are forced to negotiate with the gangs directly in order to reduce violence and crime.  

In addition to these problems, El Salvador is in desperate need of economic growth. According to Szusterman, even gang members confess that economic opportunity is what they really desire. Creating economic growth and providing jobs is easier said than done, however. El Salvador has no clear competitive advantage in the world market and no particularly promising sector to build up. Additionally, gang activity often makes running a business in El Salvador difficult, and can act as a deterrent for investors.

Furthermore, according to the World Bank, El Salvador suffers from a slow growth rate coupled with a rising government budget deficit. The country also has a “vulnerability to adverse natural events [like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions], exacerbated by environmental degradation and extreme climate variability.” For a developing nation like El Salvador, these issues can greatly hinder “sustainable development and long-term economic growth,” as well as short-run progress.

Moreover, an overwhelming fraction of the country’s GDP is composed of remittances from other countries, especially the United States. Because of this, the Salvadoran government has little incentive to create job opportunities at home. Instead, the government has a high incentive to promote migration rather than work to solve domestic problems. Without the means to climb the socioeconomic ladder, more youth will likely join gangs and thus perpetuate the cycle of violence and political weakness that plagues the country.

Potential Solutions

Most of the potential solutions to El Salvador’s problems must be carried out by the Salvadoran government itself. However, the United States does have some options for promoting positive change in El Salvador.

Firstly, the United States could assist with state-building, which consists of making the government more transparent and accountable, and building its capacity to provide for its citizens. Instead of providing purely financial aid to the Salvadoran state, it could also provide technical training and institutional support. This approach has already borne fruit, as there has recently been a marked improvement in the political independence of El Salvador’s supreme court thanks in part to U.S. technical aid.

Secondly, the U.S. government should support Salvadoran economic initiatives in order to boost job growth and wealth. While this may be difficult, it is crucial; with more economic opportunities, violence and crime will surely decrease, and quality of life in El Salvador will improve.

With more public works programs like this, as well as general economic development, Salvadoran communities could see a stark improvement in quality of life. Furthermore, as the country accumulates more wealth through economic development, the government will be able to collect more tax revenue to help strengthen state capacity. Consequently, El Salvador will be able to rely less on foreign aid and remittances.

The third way to improve conditions in El Salvador is for the United States to reform its immigration policies. The deportation of Salvadorans only exacerbates the country’s problems, whether those deported are criminals or not. However, it would not be fair to force the United States to keep criminals within its borders, either. If possible, the United States should use alternative punishments—such as jail time or house arrest—to punish immigrant criminals, and use deportation only as a last resort. In conjunction with this, it should impose more rehabilitative programs to reform criminals so that they can re-enter society rather than get deported.

Additionally, the United States should take preventative measures against immigrant crime. This would include, first and foremost, securing its borders to prevent the entrance of criminals. It should then check visas more strictly and more frequently in order to more effectively monitor those entering the country. This would help to ensure that foreign citizens do not overstay their visas and become undocumented immigrants. Finally, the United States should work to better integrate immigrants into American society so that they do not turn to street crime once they arrive.

Although El Salvador’s numerous problems are interconnected, this is actually an advantage; progress made on any one issue will automatically translate to progress on the others. For this and other reasons, those familiar with the situation are hopeful that change can happen. “This is a problem that has got a solution,” Szusterman insisted. It will just take a good dose of time, conditional monetary aid, and expertise to fix.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Lorie Shaull


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