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Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.
Life is still challenging for many families in eastern El Salvador who had to rebuild after the 2001 earthquakes, including the mother and daughter pictured above.
Photo by Marc Birnbach/Americares.
The stark difference between the homes I saw during a visit to a rural Salvadoran village illustrates the impact the latest immigration debate in the United States will have on families in the impoverished country. This week, the Department of Homeland Security announced the end of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador, which will make it illegal for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States to live and work here after September 2019.
For a moment, let’s set aside debate over whether this group should continue to receive protected status. Instead, let’s focus on this fact: whatever impact this action will have in the U.S., the impact will be magnified in El Salvador. This is a country already struggling economically and with a high rate of gang-related violent crime. Absorbing such a large returning population — and/or losing the resources it sends back home from paychecks in the U.S. — would add new hardships there. Remittances account for 17 percent of the country’s economy. Some $4.6 billion poured into El Salvador from abroad in 2016, mostly from the United States. It is critical income in an economy that is growing by 2 percent a year, according to the World Bank.
The 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador led Americares to build a community clinic in the town of Santiago de Maria — La Clincia Integral de Atención Familiar. The clinic offers high-quality, low-cost primary and specialty care to more than 60,000 children and adults every year and serves nearby communities with health education and disease prevention programs. I visited one of those communities, Colonia Libertad, Sesori, last year while our staff were conducting a program on diabetes prevention.
Social media entrepreneur and philanthropist Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, @realdoctormike, visits Americares clinic, La Clincia Integral de Atención Familiar, in spring 2017.
Village leaders gave me a tour of their tree-canopied town split by a dirt road that enters from one side and then leaves over a bridge that spans a lovely river. As we walked down this main street, I noticed nice homes not unlike those I had seen in modest, middle-class neighborhoods in the capital city of San Salvador. I saw others that reminded me of traditional village homes I have seen in rural West Africa.
What’s the difference, I asked? What jobs do those with the nice homes have that the others do not? The jobs, it turns out, are in the United States. The well-built, repaired homes belonged to families with relatives who work here in the U.S. They send money back to improve the lives of their families in El Salvador. An expert with the D.C. thinktank InterAmerican Dialogue,@The_Dialogue, recently told NPR he estimates 150,000 of the nearly 200,000 Salvadorans affected by the change send remittances — on average about $4,300 a year. That is a considerable source of income in a country where more than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
For every family counting on those resources to supplement what they can earn in a poor country like El Salvador, the loss of them may cause desperation. And desperation feeds instability, which can lead to unrest, increased poverty and more immigration.
It is important to remember, as well, that remittances are possible because the Salvadoran immigrants providing them are productive, working people earning wages and paychecks to share with their families back home.
Salvadorans living in the U.S. are contributing to the success of communities across our country. They have established deep roots here. Many have purchased homes, started businesses and are raising children born here. Ending their protected status would affect all aspects of the lives they have created in the United States. But it could hurt their families back home even more.
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