Before the gangs brought violence and extortion, David Escobar Fuentes raised cows on his family’s farm in El Salvador.
Then the gang’s demands for money forced them to sell their animals. Fuentes’ cousin tried to leave El Salvador, he said, but was nearly killed on the journey.
Despite the dangers, Fuentes said he also decided to flee to the U.S. to find a way to make money to send back to his family. He was caught in Mexico before reaching the U.S. border.
Fuentes is one of several deportees California Gov. Gavin Newsom met Monday on his first full day visiting El Salvador to understand why so many Central Americans migrate to the U.S.
Speaking to reporters before Newsom arrived at La Chacra, the country’s reintegration center where deportees are processed when they reenter El Salvador, Fuentes described the violence and poverty he tried to escape.
“Here, the struggle is day by day,” he said in Spanish through a translator. “There is no justice in the country.”
No one is safe from the violence, he said, not even a baby he said he saw who was shot in the neck.
“Many people have stopped studying and stopped going to school because they are so afraid of the gangs,” said Fuentes, 26.
Bayron Melgar Menjivar, 18, recounted that he traveled illegally to Houston to live with an aunt, but came back six months later to help his mother. He says since he returned, he barely leaves his house out of fear.
Fuentes’s aunt Sandra Monroy left El Salvador with her nephew in a migrant caravan in October, searching for a job and economic stability. She and Fuentes were caught on the journey and sent back to El Salvador.
“Maybe God was saving us from something bad,” said Monroy, 42.
In the last three years, more people are being deported back to El Salvador after spending much of their life in the U.S., said Salvador Gutierrez, an International Organization for Migration official who spoke to reporters at La Chacra. Unlike those apprehended at the border before they even enter Mexico or the U.S., people deported from inside the United States often came there as children and have nowhere to go when they return to El Salvador, he said.
“Your family’s not expecting you,” Gutierrez said. “In some cases, they don’t even want you.”
Deportations have long caused problems for El Salvador. MS-13, a street gang responsible for much of the violence in the country, was started by Salvadoran immigrants in the 1980s in Los Angeles. It spread to El Salvador when members were deported.
Now, people deported after living for many years in the U.S. need more services to reintegrate back into their home country, such as Spanish lessons and therapy after dealing with the psychological trauma of having their life turned upside down, Gutierrez said.
The demand for those services is overwhelming, but if the U.S. cuts aid as President Donald Trump has threatened, those reintegration programs will suffer, Gutierrez said.
The Trump administration argues the aid programs, which are aimed at improving life in Central America so fewer people will be compelled to leave, are not effectively preventing illegal immigration into the United States.
“The president has made clear that the decision is aimed at securing the United States borders and protecting American citizens,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told The Associated Press earlier this month. “These programs have not effectively prevented illegal immigration from coming to the United States, and they’ve not achieved the desired results.”
Officials in El Salvador argue cutting the aid will exacerbate the problem.
“It would be very unfortunate if those programs that are working very successfully would be cut,” said Ernesto Muyshondt, mayor of the nation’s capital San Salvador. “It would only make the immigration problem a lot worse.”
Trump has also threatened to shut down the southern border if Mexico doesn’t do more to apprehend migrants before they reach the United States, although he’s since said he won’t act on that threat for a year.
More than 40 percent of deportees are sent back to El Salvador from Mexico, according to numbers from the International Organization for Migration. Nearly 60 percent are deported from the United States.
Oscar Lopez, 37, a Salvadoran living illegally in California’s Central Valley, says every day he worries he’ll join that statistic. Lopez grew up in a rural village in El Salvador and moved to Mendota in 2003. He works as a farm laborer picking fruits and vegetables.
Before Newsom’s trip, Lopez told The Bee he hoped the governor would see what drives people to move to the U.S. and become an advocate for immigration reform to help people like him work in the United States without fear of being deported.
“I hope he will learn about the reasons why we are coming here,” Lopez said in Spanish. “We come here to work hard for something that we need.”
After speaking with the deportees at La Chacra, Newsom said he was affected by the humanity in their stories.
“Everybody seeks a better life,” he said. “How do you begrudge someone for wanting something better or more for their children, for people they love?”
Yesenia Amaro contributed from Fresno.