Here at LIRS, we have firsthand knowledge of the daily life which forces Central Americans to flee their homes. Rev. Phil Anderson lives in El Salvador and assists LIRS to deepen connections with Lutheran partners in Central America. He recently spoke of not only the violence that forces children to flee and why insecurity persists, but also how local faith groups have reached out to try and heal their communities.
This interview was conducted by Clarissa Perkins, Marketing Project Manager.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What are some of the reasons why people flee?
Rev. Phil Anderson (PA): Let me tell you the story of a young boy in El Salvador: this boy’s mother had left him when he was two to find work in the States and support him. She left him with his grandmother. When he was just 10, his grandmother told him that he was the man of the house and her only hope. He did not migrate to the United States like so many of his peers, because he loved his grandmother and knew her more than his mother.
To get to school, he had to walk from his neighborhood, which was controlled by one gang, to another neighborhood, which was controlled by a different gang. One day, as he was crossing from the one gang controlled area to the next, the gangs killed him. This is the story of so many youth—they stay and risk being killed, or they flee.
After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, children who were at risk were airlifted out. Just about every youth is at risk here. What options are available to them to provide security?
In El Salvador, the violence isn’t in every community, but 75 municipalities out of 280 are considered most dangerous. If you go to these municipalities, word gets out that you were there. If you’re in a car or a bus, you’ll be seen and gang members will ask questions, and ask why you were there. Recently, gangs signed an agreement to not recruit in schools or kill amongst gangs. But gangs aren’t uniform. Even if the head of the gang calls a truce, it might not filter down to the barrio (neighborhood).
In terms of migrating to the United States, word got out that coyotes could get people to safety. People have given up; they don’t see a response from the government to address these problems. 6th graders tell me, “I’m going to the States next year,” as if it’s just the next step—routine. This past summer, out of around 400 to 500 students, a local school lost 45 to migration. The best and the brightest in Central America have aspirations, and there are few opportunities in their country, so they are the ones who migrate.
Due to the current violence, and to the civil war in the 80’s, one out of three Salvadorans lives outside El Salvador, so family reunification and lack of opportunity are big drivers as well. Sadly, poor migrants aren’t wanted anywhere. I recently spoke to a man who said, “I’m not safe at home, where do I go? No one wants me. The United States doesn’t want me, Costa Rica doesn’t want me, Nicaragua doesn’t want me. I have nowhere to go.”
Guatemala meanwhile is considered a disintegrating state with narco-traffickers better armed than the army. Narco-traffickers will pay a town to be able to rule it. Rule of law is completely broken down in some areas, and the government cooperates with the gangs.
The violence in these areas becomes a psychosis.
CP: Do you see the faith community and other groups taking action towards peace?
PA: The faith community is playing an important role. Many people think it’s the faith community that can make a difference. There was a moment where gangs would let members leave if they became part of a church. At the end of the day, gang members are often extorting to feed their kids.
The Salvadoran Lutheran Synod has a ministry on migration issues. Congregations are talking about these issues, encouraging people to stay. The Salvadoran Synod has a covenant with their companion synods in the United States, so if someone is migrating to the United States, they have the name of a congregation that can welcome them and become a social network.
Baptists in El Salvador are mitigating between gangs and the Episcopal Church has a temporary space for those who can’t leave the country but need a safe space. They receive 6 people per day. El Salvador is a small country, there aren’t many places to run away.
All churches have contacts within gangs and congregation members who have been lost to migration and murder.
CP: I’ve heard that you’ve seen propaganda from Customs and Border Patrol and other U.S. government agencies in Central America to deter mothers from sending their children to the U.S. Tell us a bit about this propaganda.
PA: There are billboards that say, “I thought it’d be easy for my son to go to the U.S. and get documents. I was wrong.” The art is a person in the desert. It’s on the backs of buses, which travel all over the cities, so everyone sees them. It’s hard to know if it’s influencing the community. The U.S. government policy has affected migration. Since the clampdown, the price to pay coyotes has gone up. But more than 90% of people are able to get through to Mexico. Because there are so many mountains between Guatemala and Mexico, there’s no way to seal the Guatemala-Mexico border. Migration will continue.
CP: What do you think Americans should know about the crisis and El Salvador that they probably don’t know?
PA: Americans don’t know the deep underlying structural injustice of the way things are now. We don’t know as Americans how we can contribute to a more just and peaceful world. It’s not through more military and border security. It’s by breaking down the huge disparity between the wealthy and poor. Money isn’t the answer, money has poured into the country for hurricanes, etc., and it just goes to the gangs/cartels. There needs to be pressure from below. We are not willing to address that. We think that if we address it, it’ll change our way of life. What is the role of civil society and people of faith as distinct from the government? What values drive us? Faith or nationalism?
There are some sparks of hope, admirable people who are working in those communities, people who don’t give up, single moms who say, “I have to provide for my children.” You just wonder how they make it.
If Rev. Phil Anderson’s perspective moves you, learn more about the crisis and take action at lirs.org/bordercrisis.