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U.S. Decision Leaves Salvadorans ‘Running for Their Lives’

A recent Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond’s Mission Immersion Experience to El Salvador brought to light an issue that I had given little thought to – internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the country of El Salvador itself.

While we were there, the announcement was made that the U.S. was ending temporary protected status for Salvadorans in 2019.

The return of these persons will make an already bad situation worse, and it seems contrary to U.S. interest in stability and security in Central America.

The Latin America Working Group, a D.C.-based coalition dedicated to human rights and foreign policy, estimates that approximately 324,000 persons were displaced by crime and violence in El Salvador in 2015.

According to the International Rescue Committee, the government does not officially recognize or track IDPs, but an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Salvadorans are displaced each year.

Internally displaced persons are essentially persons or groups of persons who are on the run at home.

They are seeking to “avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters,” according to the OHCHR’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

They haven’t crossed any internationally recognized borders, aren’t classified as refugees and are difficult to identify because many are simply anonymous victims.

In El Salvador, the majority are fleeing generalized or gang-related violence, which includes extortion, physical harm and assassination. And when they are displaced, they become invisible.

In communities across El Salvador, children aren’t allowed to play outside for fear that they will fall under the influence of or be threatened by gangs.

Boys and young men are prime targets for gang recruitment; young women, girls and members of the LGBTQ community are particularly vulnerable to threats, intimidation and violence, including rape.

Displacement often begins with “self-incarceration” at home when a person is threatened.

As the danger increases, the person withdraws until he or she is no longer safe outside his or her home.

All aspects of a normal life are affected, such as education, work, social interactions and even the ability to shop and purchase food for the family.

The next step is to move to another neighborhood or community with a family member or friend.

According to one public school official, many students simply disappear from the classroom.

Students often receive a threat and have only days to find a solution or risk physical harm or death, should they fail to comply with the gang’s demands.

They are often sent to live with friends or relatives in another community.

Moving to another community in-country doesn’t solve the problem. Gang leaders communicate with each other, and the leader in the new community may have already been notified to expect a person by the time he or she arrives, and the process is repeated.

And eventually, the person reaches the point where leaving the country is the only option left.

El Salvador is a small country, approximately the size of Massachusetts, with only 8,124 square miles and approximately 6.4 million inhabitants.

IDPs in El Salvador can generally anticipate making three moves within the country before running out of options, leaving no choice but migration to a neighboring country (El Salvador shares borders with Honduras and Guatemala) – or across Mexico and on to the United States.

In some cases, entire families will flee, selling or abandoning homes and businesses in the hope of finding safety and security.

Both individuals and families who have been threatened often leave without making arrangements with smugglers and with just a few dollars in their pockets.

Many are apprehended in Mexico and returned to El Salvador by bus. They return with nothing, and these are among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Once they are returned, the threat still exists, they are still in danger, and their resources are now gone.

Deportees and “returnees” who have been away for a while face a bleak future.

Salvadorans tend to be suspicious of persons who have been deported, particularly from the United States, and often view them as criminals.

Persons in both groups struggle with language, culture and unemployment or underemployment. And then there are the issues of extortion, intimidation and violence.

This is the context where the United States plans to send back an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived and worked in the United States with temporary protected status since 2001.

These persons have been physically present in the U.S. since March 2001 and have renewed their status every 18 months.

And what about the approximately 190,000 dependent spouses and children – will they move to El Salvador too?

Let’s add an additional 25,900 DACA holders who were born in El Salvador, teens and young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children and whose temporary protections are currently set to expire.

And during the past two years, the U.S. has deported approximately 40,000 persons, further contributing to the problems of displacement, unemployment and mental health issues that manifest through episodes of clinical depression, PTSD and anxiety disorders.

During our visit, we met with numerous officials from religious groups, nongovernmental organizations and the Salvadoran government who said that the country is making slow but steady progress to address the problems.

Programs such as the USAID-funded Crime and Violence Prevention Program and the government’s Plan for Safe El Salvador program are making a difference in high-risk communities throughout the country.

But systemic change takes time, and the hard stance on immigration by the U.S. seems destined to thwart any progress toward solving the problems.

The church plays a vital role in contributing to this systemic change that must take place in El Salvador.

As followers of Christ, we must become more educated and aware of how our actions as a nation affect others.

And we must unite our efforts on behalf of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable; on behalf of justice and mercy for those who are displaced, unwanted and pushed to the fringes of society; on behalf of those who simply want to live in safety and security.

Sue Smith serves as a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel with Latino Immigrants in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She is a graduate of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR) and along with her husband, Greg, co-led a Mission Immersion Experience to El Salvador for students. You can follow her on Twitter @nuttsmith1.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reflections on the BTSR Mission Immersion Experience to El Salvador in January 2018, with articles written by trip leaders, Sue and Greg Smith, and three of their students.