The hope to reverse the child migration crisis from Central America to California and other border states may reside in a small moment in San Salvador.
Last week, six legislative colleagues and I stood quietly on a muggy morning at the crypt of Salvadoran hero Archbishop Óscar Romero. The patron saint for El Salvador’s poor and landless was assassinated while celebrating Mass by the American-backed paramilitary government in 1980. If a respected religious figure could be murdered, we were told, there was little hope for average people who stood up for their country.
Thirty-four years later, after thousands died and as many disappeared, the majority party in El Salvador’s legislative assembly is the FMLN, the former rebels who fought the civil war. Today’s El Salvador has free elections, and its civilian government trumps the traditional military power. Yet the extraordinary progress is still largely incomplete.
El Salvador’s history was movingly told to us by Damian Alegria, an FMLN assembly member. A goodwill ambassador if I’ve ever met one, he told us not only the modern history of El Salvador but his own amazing story. Captured three separate times by the military, he was once tortured by a captor who deprived him of sleep for 10 days to extract information about the rebels. Alegria refused but was released instead of killed, unlike so many others.
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What happened to his captor? He now serves in the assembly with Alegria. He apologized, Alegria publicly forgave him and they talk regularly. It puts Washington, D.C., to shame.
El Salvador is mounting an aggressive public service campaign discouraging parents and children from making the dangerous journey to the United States. But think about what it takes for parents to encourage or allow their children to travel thousands of miles with strangers and little or no shelter or protection. Their motivation is as old as the centuries of America’s history of immigration and generational progress. Many Salvadoran parents take the risk because they desperately want a better life for their children.
We should rightfully treat the children who arrive in our country with care and compassion. But the long-term solution lies with Alegria and his vision for his country. He knows that his government must find ways to spend more on education and its children, because the alternative is the notorious gangs.
The minimum wage in El Salvador equates to $1 an hour. The entire nation has a budget of $4 billion a year. The United Nations recommends that developing nations spend 7.5 percent of their gross domestic product on education; El Salvador spends less than 3.5 percent. Public education is just half-day instruction.
While attention focuses on the border crisis, the United States is working quietly with the Salvadoran government to dramatically increase those investments. The U.S. has offered El Salvador $277 million for vocational education, transportation infrastructure and grants for businesses to hire more Salvadoran youths. The U.S. embassy told us that the vocational education money could benefit a million children.
But there was a hang-up. For weeks, the El Salvador legislative assembly had balked at a U.S. demand to pass an anti-money laundering bill to assure that aid is not misspent. The country’s attorney general is from an opposition minority party and the majority party worries about selective and partisan prosecution.
I politely told the president of the assembly that given the situation on the border, El Salvador could not afford to lose this significant American investment and had to find a way to work it out. He politely explained the complications and said it would take weeks.
The following morning, a Salvadoran national newspaper headlined my remarks: “NO MONEY LAUNDERING REFORMS, NO U.S. AID.” Slightly exaggerated, but nonetheless the assembly passed the bill later that day. If only state budgets were this easy.
Political posturing about securing borders and the failure of Congress to pass immigration reform obscures basic facts about human nature. People strive for hope and dignity. They are willing to do almost anything to attain it, especially for their children. While America and California should continue welcoming immigrants and especially help children fleeing poverty and violence, Salvadorans overwhelmingly want to live in the country they know, if they have some hope.
After meeting Damian Alegria, I know our country has an opportunity to change the migration challenge in a sustainable way. Unlike our historic military tack in Central America, we ought to build on the $277 million down payment.
It may take time to show tangible results. But it will be a much more effective, humane and ultimately less costly choice to help Salvadorans stay home and build a better life.