January 10, 2018 by Debra Gittler


I’ve been told, though I’m not completely sure it’s true, that:

– Salvadorans make up the largest minority demographic in the DC area.

– the staff that cleans the White House consists of a large number of Salvadorans.

– One of the wealthiest Salvadorans, located in the DC area (I won’t mention his name) has a true rags-to-riches story of a poor immigrant whose first job was as a janitor in the White House, and over time he moved up and eventually started his own business, a company that cleans the majority of the office buildings in the DC area, including the White House.

(A 1985 NYTimes article claims that Salvadoran’s believe the capital is the best place to live…)

There’s something ironic to me that the decision to end TPS for Salvadorans comes from the same city, the same building, the same desk, that is also cleaned by, landscaped by, taught by, driven by, led by Salvadorans. At ConTextos, we’ve had a strong relationship with DC bilingual schools for years—their large Salvadoran student population, Salvadoran teachers, Salvadoran parents, Salvadoran principals create an obvious partnership for best-practice. Our staff has gone to DC so many times to deepen our knowledge and improve our skills…

In El Salvador, our friend and colleague Rodrigo Bolaños, Director of LEAGUE Manufacturing, talks often about the opportunity in El Salvador to welcome back “los hermanos lejanos,” the faraway brothers who migrated to El Norte. He predicted months ago that deportations would increase, that protections would end. Rodrigo often wonders aloud what El Salvador could offer and gain from an influx of middle class, high-capacity workers…

We don’t know for sure that these 200,000 Salvadorans will return to El Salvador. Perhaps congress will come up with a legislative solution to allow people who have legally lived 20 years in the USA to stay. Some will stay without documentation. Some will head back to El Salvador, where pervasive gang presence and lack of rule of law make them ideal targets for extortion and crime. Certainly, the $4.5 billion in remittances—17% of El Salvador’s GDP—will be affected.

Perhaps instead of remittances, returnees will open business, help spur economic growth, and some percentage of those remittances will be replaced by locally generated economies. Perhaps they will help quell the violence, restabilize communities devastated by migration and war that has evolved into organized crime and disenfranchisement. Perhaps the experience in the developed world will bring insight as to how to improve conditions in the global south.

I admit, I have a little dream… something I’ve experienced once or twice over the years, that perhaps would happen large scale…

What if families did come back to El Salvador? Parents would enroll their kids at the local school, and begin to demand better quality education—because US parents know that they must advocate for their kids’ education. They would demand books in classrooms and read-alouds, and check-outs. They would scoff at “planas,” the traditional practice of copying words, phrases or passages over and over, and insist on instruction that encourages curiosity and expression. They would strengthen parent committees and advocate for increased investment in education—El Salvador invests a paltry amount, only 4% of the GDP, far below the UN’s recommended 6%. These parents, by advocating for their own kids, would also advocate for the kids who have never known anything else. Teachers would come back, too, and push into schools, and model more innovative ways of teaching…

Now this doesn’t mean I, personally, or ConTextos, supports the decision to end TPS for Salvadorans (or Nicaraguans or Haitians…). The role of Salvadorans in the USA so deeply affects everyone in the Central American region—the splintering of families, the role of remittances, the impact of American culture, the presence of US-based gangs—are realities to navigate in any sector, for-profit or non. It’s impossible not to see how the US’ stagnant migration policies hurt Salvadoran families everywhere—TPS, like undocumentation, affects the ability to travel freely back to the home country, creating fissures and separations between families, leaving kids without parents, communities without their citizens, and planting fertile ground for the insecurity and strife that allows gangs and violence to prosper.

So what does this all mean? I don’t know. But I imagine today that someone is polishing the resolute desk in the Oval Office and feeling a little bit more nervous than they did 48 hours ago. Because someone they know is affected, their community will be fractured, and we’ll continue to see the seeds that sew instability and violence spread as families and communities, again, are torn apart.

Can there be a reverse rags-to-riches story? Can the “American dream” happen for migrants returning to El Salvador? I don’t know. I guess we’re about to find out…

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