Reflections on El Salvador

Last month, I traveled to El Salvador with the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities delegation, who are primarily from Madison. Upon my return, I watched in horror as President Trump’s inhumane and cruel policy of taking away children, including babies and toddlers, from their immigrant parents as they enter the United States intensified. Many of these individuals and families are from Central America, including El Salvador.

El Salvador is a country that breaks your heart. Most people have very little, with wealth being clustered in the hands of the very few. This economic disparity led to a 12-year civil war that began in 1980 and resulted in 75,000 people being slaughtered, most by right-wing government forces, some trained by the United States.

Since the war ended, gang warfare has continued the bloodshed, establishing El Salvador as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Young men and, more and more, young women, are targeted for gang recruitment. There is no option to refuse or to leave the gang. Extortion, threats and violence are common tactics used by gangs to extract money and resources from individuals who are forced to flee for their lives when they cannot comply. In San Salvador, like many other places in El Salvador, you do not go out after dark.

This epidemic of violence is against a backdrop of a stunning landscape with warm and welcoming people, despite so much suffering. Every person we met, whether in San Salvador or Arcatao (Madison’s sister city) or El Charcon, had a story of loss – of whole families murdered during the war or of family members having to flee the country because of violence or for economic survival.

What I learned in all of these places, from dozens of people we talked with, was when Salvadorans leave their communities and families on a perilous, uncertain journey to Mexico or the United States, they do so not just for the chance at a better life, but oftentimes to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Most of the unaccompanied Salvadoran minors who show up at our border are not members of gangs as President Trump alleges, but young people seeking safety from violence.

For the last several months, mothers fleeing violence who were lucky enough to make it to the United States border paid the barbaric price of President Trump’s inhumane policy of child snatching. The Trump administration has simultaneously made it more difficult for asylum-seekers to even get to a port of entry, and long waits ensue for those who do.

The president has not committed to immediately reunifying over 2,300 traumatized children with their families, a cruel omission considering the devastation he has inflicted on helpless children who continue to languish. He also has not committed to permanently abandon this inhumane policy.

Gov. Scott Walker should withhold Wisconsin National Guard troops from the border until President Trump specifically commits to expeditiously reunite detained children with their families and, regardless of court action, permanently ceases using these cruel policies toward people who are at our borders because they need our help and are out of options.