As a Salvadoran family continued to resist deportation by taking sanctuary in a Catholic church in Lilburn, a senior official from the country’s foreign ministry addressed in Atlanta the need to fix the reasons people leave her country.
“The major cause for the migration is the economic situation, so if we create jobs, we create more opportunities,” said Liduvina Magarin, vice minister for El Salvadorans abroad, after making a presentation on the country’s investment climate at an Aug. 5 breakfast organized by the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Georgia.
But many believe that the cycle of poverty is interwoven with the notorious violence perpetrated by the country’s maras, or armed gangs.
Claudia Jurado, the pregnant mother staying in a converted office at the church with her 1-year-old son, is an example of that challenge. She reportedly left her country after receiving death threats when she stopped paying gangs weekly for protection. She fears that the extortion will continue if she returns — or worse, that she’ll be violently punished for leaving in the first place.
“If I go back, I fear for my life and my children’s life,” she said in reports which outlined the journey taken by the 27-year-old, her husband and their two children last year through Mexico and across the Rio Grande. They were separated along the way but reunited in Georgia, where she had family.
Gang violence emerged as a point of concern for investors at the Aug. 5 business breakfast held at Georgia Power Inc.’s headquarters.
An employee of YKK Corp. of America, the Japanese zipper manufacturer with Americas headquarters in Marietta, spoke up to say that the company has worked in El Salvador since the 1970s but now spends much of its time in San Salvador protecting employees and facilities from gangs. In one recent event, a gang member reportedly threw a hand grenade into the parking lot of a hotel frequented by foreign managers.
Ms. Magarin said much of the violence has to do with President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s newfound resolve to change the situation.
“Never before have we faced head-on the gang problem in El Salvador. What we’re seeing now is the response by the gangs to a government that has decided not to negotiate. Our president has been very clear: We cannot negotiate with criminals; we have to fight them,” she said through a translator.
Countries that have dealt with similar problems have often seen them get worse before they get better, she said. El Salvador’s government is in the process of boosting services like housing and health care while enhancing cooperation between national security forces and local police across the nation’s 57 municipalities, she said.
But the real key is to provide greater economic opportunity to help citizens see a future in their own country, she said. After a mass exodus of more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador created a crisis on the U.S. border last year, the countries of Central America’s “northern triangle” banded together to stem the flow.
In November, their three presidents visited Washington to present a plan for the Alliance of Prosperity, which is to be backed by $1 billion in U.S. funding through the Inter-American Development Bank. It requires the governments to lay out detailed plans for improving policing, enhancing educational offerings, targeting public investment, professionalizing public services and much more.
In a preliminary document, the governments disclosed the results of research intended to surmise why nearly 10 percent of their populations had chosen to emigrate. For kids, the threat of violence was the most often cited reason; for adults, it was economic opportunity.
“It is clear that the factors which caused thousands of our children and their relatives to emigrate are not rooted in short-term circumstances. Rather, they stem from a context which for many years has failed to provide people with the economic and social opportunities that would allow them to prosper and aspire to a better life in our countries,” the statement reads.
Still, Ms. Magarin would like to see comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S., which could provide more certainty for those like Ms. Jurado, who came believing she could forge a better life.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said in a statement that she was afforded due process but that a court had chosen to deny her asylum, resulting in the deportation order she’s now defying. She reportedly used garden shears to cut off an electronic ankle bracelet officials had imposed to monitor her movements. ICE officials have said that they won’t extract her from the church, but it’s unclear how the situation will pan out.
Atlanta immigration attorney Karen Weinstock said the law imposes strict guidelines for asylum seekers, who have to be a member of a particular nationality or political, religious, ethnic or social group who can prove past or coming persecution based on that affiliation.
“It can’t be just, ‘I’m afraid to go home because there’s violence and crime.’ That’s not a basis for asylum,’” Ms. Weinstock said, noting that some eligible immigrants can appeal their removal orders.
Still, it’s clear that the rising violence in El Salvador, in part abetted by the release and deportation of hardened gang members from U.S. prisons, has contributed to the increase in immigrant arrivals over the past decade, she added.
Claudia Valenzuela, consul general of El Salvador in Atlanta, said Ms. Jurado’s case, while garnering a lot of attention, is simply one of the many stories she’s handling in a Salvadoran community that numbers 60,000 or so across the Southeast.
“I’m always with my citizens. I’m always trying to look out for them,” she told Global Atlanta. “That’s our job — to be here for them.”
The Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia is the presenting sponsor of Global Atlanta's Diplomacy Channel. Subscribe here for monthly Diplomacy newsletters.