Rethinking El Salvador’s Transnational Families

Leisy J. Abrego

Sixteen-year-old daniel stands at about four feet, eight inches in his faded school uniform, his bony arms exposed. His body is evidence of his family’s dire economic situation. Tears well up in his eyes as he describes his father’s many failed attempts to migrate from El Salvador to the United States and the injustices he faced during U.S. detention. Although his father used to send home money, an injury on the job now prevents him from working. All the family receives now are infrequent letters. With tears streaming down his face, Daniel says: “There are days—that’s why I’m going to church now, because there are days when I just want to climb up to the roof and hang myself.”
Daniel is one of hundreds of thousands of children in El Salvador who rely on migrant parents’ remittances—the monies migrants send back to their families and communities—from the United States. (Pseudonyms are used throughout this article to preserve subjects’ anonymity.) Like him, as many as 40% of young people in El Salvador grow up without one or both parents due to migration.1

These transnational families are at the center of one of El Salvador’s most pressing policy concerns. Politically, economically, and socially, migration is pivotal in El Salvador, where an estimated 20% to 35% of the population emigrates. In effect, El Salvador’s principal export is its workers, and its principal import is their remittances. Every aspect of Salvadoran national life is somehow affected by migration, but because remittances now make up 18% of the gross domestic product, national politicians focus almost exclusively on the economic aspect of migration.

Past governments have loudly criticized the perceived “waste” of family remittances and tried to increase the economic efficiency of collective remittances. For example, various matching-funds programs run by the Social Investment and Local Development Fund have channelled money raised by hometown associations to projects meant to generate more revenue for the state. At the symbolic level, a highly visible monument dedicated to the hermano lejano (faraway brother) was erected in 1994 at the entrance to San Salvador to remind migrants that they are tied, as extended family members, to the nation.2 But politicians have not looked beyond the coveted remittances to consider the impact of long-term family separation on migrants and their children.

Previous presidents have failed to think holistically about transnational families, their members in El Salvador and the United States, or the collective social effect of having such a large percentage of the population living in long-term separation from loved ones. Often it seems that past administrations, in crafting their policies, have relied too closely on popular assumptions. Throughout the country, in neighborly conversations, newspapers, and political blogs, people blame transnational families for everything from national economic woes to the proliferation of gangs and crime.

The facile assumptions are that migrant parents try to buy their children’s love by sending home exorbitant amounts of money, which the children then spend irresponsibly; or, on the contrary, that parents reach the United States only to begin new lives and forget about their children, who then join gangs to fill the emotional void. Although such things do happen, these simplistic assumptions fail to capture a wide range of complex experiences among transnational families. Most notably, they ignore the profound emotional suffering of family separation, obscure the structural constraints that powerfully determine how transnational families fare, and misrepresent these families’ various economic realities.

Newly elected Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes and his administration have an opportunity to break with tradition and improve the lives of the families who make the profound sacrifices necessary to attain the coveted remittances. Undeniably, remittances have become the mainstay of the Salvadoran economy, as they have in many other countries in the hemisphere. But the fact that children like Daniel are overwhelmed to the point that they cannot focus on school, socially isolate themselves, and have suicidal thoughts should serve as a warning that the negative effects of family separation may ultimately outweigh the benefits of remittances.

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Daniel, like his older brothers, was a promising student. He was motivated, curious, and talented, always achieving the highest grades. His father, Rodrigo, who was responsible and loving, lost his job as a supermarket manager and spent months trying to find employment in El Salvador. When the family could no longer afford to pay for the eldest son’s university expenses on the mother’s meager wages, Rodrigo opted to migrate in 2001. He found the coyote (immigrant smuggler) with the best reputation, and the family gave their house as collateral for the $6,000 trip to the United States. But the coyote kept none of his promises: no easy route, no comfortable stays, no quick trip. Instead, Rodrigo went hungry, had to find lodging on his own in some towns, and was even taken hostage by the coyote, who demanded more money from the family in El Salvador, after Rodrigo risked his life to stop the coyote from raping a young woman.

When Rodrigo finally crossed the border into the United States, Border Patrol agents quickly detected and apprehended him. He spent two months in an overcrowded, foul-smelling Arizona detention center where most detainees were forced to sleep on the floor, leaving little space to walk to the bathroom, where more detainees slept. From there he was transferred to another detention center in California before being deported back to El Salvador. When he arrived home, he found his son Daniel selling homemade bracelets on the street and working as a baker’s assistant to pay for school-related expenses. Rodrigo, unable to find work again, was forced to migrate once more to the United States, both to help his family and to pay for the tremendous smuggling debt.

Traveling by himself, Rodrigo safely made it to the United States in 2002. He eventually got a job at a warehouse in Los Angeles, where he worked intensely for less than minimum wage. Without proper training or tools, he carried heavy loads until one day he hurt his back. Unaware of his rights and disdained by his employers, he moved on to other jobs where he was quickly fired because his injury prevented him from performing strenuous tasks.

Today, Daniel and his family in El Salvador have not seen Rodrigo in years. Without the financial support they thought would come after Rodrigo’s migration, the family has suffered tremendously. Unable to make enough money to eat three meals a day, Daniel, the once promising student, opts to go to school hungry on most days. Although he tries to focus on the subjects that once impassioned him, he has a difficult time earning good grades because he is so anxious about his family’s economic situation. And to make matters worse, the malnutrition has stunted his growth to the point that fellow schoolmates make fun of him.

“With your height, you should be in kindergarten!” Daniel remembers them saying. “I feel so bad, so ashamed. I should be taller, I should be stronger, but life has been bad to me.”

Despite the popular perceptions of transnational families as either enjoying lavish lifestyles or abandoned by migrant parents, the experiences of Daniel’s family are common. The exorbitant smuggling fees, the treacherous journey through Mexico, the terrible treatment in detention centers, and the vulnerability of being unprotected by any legal system—all of these realities plague the lives of unauthorized Salvadoran migrants to the United States. Meanwhile, children like Daniel, who want nothing more than to live with their parents and have enough resources to eat and attend school regularly, deeply suffer the consequences of an unjust global economy and an inhumane migration regime. Instead of enjoying their childhood, feeling loved and protected, and focusing on school, these children are forced to work, miss school, and worry about their family’s financial situation. Collectively, their energy and productive contributions are sorely missed opportunities for the nation.

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There is another dimension of undocumented immigration that is all too often overlooked: gender. Although it is not on most politicians’ radar, gender strongly shapes how migrants and their families fare. Men and women, mothers and fathers, even though they all depart with the same desire to pull themselves and their families out of poverty, have very different migration experiences. Not only are women more vulnerable than men during the journey north, but also once they arrive in the United States, they face greater structural barriers. Most notably, immigrant mothers in transnational families are hugely disadvantaged in the U.S. labor market.

Salvadoran immigrants generally earn low wages by U.S. standards, but men tend to earn an average $6,000 more per year than women.3 This is because jobs restricted to women generally pay less than those restricted to men. In all of the most common occupations for Salvadoran women—domestic work, garment sewing, and hotel housekeeping—workers earn meager wages, even after years of being on the job. Undocumented mothers, therefore, face greater hurdles than fathers in sending money to their children. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable, given the lack of regulations and the private nature of the job. They typically earn between $60 and $550 per week, depending on their legal status, but most earn about $250 per week.4 Their duties, even when they are hired solely to provide child care, typically also include cooking, cleaning, laundering, and sometimes even caring for their employers’ elderly relatives.

Garment workers are also greatly exploited. Their inconsistent, poorly paid employment continues to confine even seasoned workers and their children to poverty. Many garment workers who have been in the industry for as long as 15 years still earn as little as $105 per week working full-time. And in many cases, even when they have steady work, the factory owners do not pay them on time. For example, many women in Los Angeles factories regularly receive checks that do not cover work they have already completed, and they must wait one month to cash them. Given the piecemeal nature of the work, it is very difficult to secure fair, livable wages. Hotel housekeeping also pays relatively meager wages, despite being physically demanding. Housekeepers, including longtime workers, earn between minimum wage and $12 per hour—a too often insufficient wage to maintain a household in the United States, let alone guarantee economic stability for employees’ families in El Salvador.

On the lowest end of the spectrum for men, day laborers typically make about $10 per hour. Day labor, however, is inconsistent and unreliable. Further along the spectrum, construction workers and janitors make between $10 and $12 per hour, while one contractor I interviewed makes about $50,000 per year. Soon after migrating and starting a new job, however, immigrant men can earn close to or just more than $300 per week in landscaping, dishwashing, and painting. Construction workers, auto mechanics, waiters, truck drivers, and upholstery workers make between $450 and $600 per week. This is especially noteworthy when contrasted with one immigrant mother’s comments, who after six years of toiling in several jobs wondered, “When do you think I’ll be able to make even $300 a week?”

One of the reasons men earn more than women is that in occupations restricted to men, workers are able to translate their educational attainment and work experience into greater wages—particularly when they count on legal permanent residency. For example, Milton, a construction and upholstery worker, was promoted multiple times when he demonstrated his engineering knowledge. Similarly, other immigrant fathers can be promoted as auto mechanics. Cirilo, an immigrant father with three children in El Salvador, made about $30,000 per year, while Samuel, father of one daughter in El Salvador, made about $35,000. Continually improving car technology provides opportunities for updating labor skills, and mechanics can get certified in new areas relatively often, thereby increasing their hourly wages with more certificates.

Despite the unequal labor-market opportunities for men and women, many children in mother-away families can count on consistent remittances. On the other hand, not all families relying on migrant fathers fare as well. Many receive insufficient, inconsistent sums that tend to decrease over time. This phenomenon is related to how Salvadoran society constructs motherhood and fatherhood. In general, motherhood is seen as the ideal image of women, and mothers are expected to be selfless in caring for their children. Fathers, on the other hand, are expected to do little more than serve as disciplinarians and economic providers. These social expectations travel with transnational mothers and fathers and help determine how much and how often they remit.

Most problematic about these gendered practices is the long-term vulnerability women migrants face. Despite their low wages, mothers are more likely than fathers to consistently send large percentages of their earnings to their children. To do this, they make extreme sacrifices, eating very little or sleeping on the floor in a small rented space. Griselda, a transnational mother, recalled the hardships she underwent when she first got a job in the United States.

“I’ve always sent $300 [each month] to my [daughter], and I would get paid $100 weekly [working as a live-in nanny]. I would end up with $90 because I also had to pay the fee to wire the money. . . . It was horrible. . . . Each week I would buy a dozen ramen noodle soups, which I don’t even want to see anymore, really. . . . But I was the happiest woman in the world because my daughter had something to eat!”

Most transnational mothers share similar stories of sacrifice and extreme self-deprivation. Some have even endured violent relationships for the sake of their children’s economic stability in El Salvador. Juana, a transnational mother who has been apart from her children for several years, said, “[A]s a mother, you come here and you know that there are mouths that are waiting to be fed with the money that you make, so you do what you have to do to send them some money.” She stayed in a violent relationship for six years because her partner would at least pay rent and most of the bills. “That was the only way I could have enough to send to my daughters,” she said.

Putting their children’s needs above their own, many transnational mothers send most of their resources to El Salvador. And although it is possible that their children benefit economically and educationally from their sacrifices, these migrant women have little left for themselves. Because they work hard and keep only the bare minimum that they need for survival, they do not count on the time or the funds necessary to participate in U.S. society. They are not investing in their future in the United States, nor are they integrating socially or politically. Even if comprehensive immigration reform were to pass in the coming years, it would be a significant challenge for them to save enough money to pay for their children’s travel, visa, and settlement costs. The gendered disparities in the labor market and in social expectations leave them, and by extension, their families in El Salvador, particularly unprotected.

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During funes’s campaign for the presidency and even at his inauguration, he repeatedly declared the need to find a definitive and humane solution to the migratory situation of undocumented Salvadorans in the United States. Juan José García, the vice minister of Salvadorans Living Abroad under the Funes administration, is working on a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform to present to the U.S. government in November. The proposal, in addition to requesting the legalization of all undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, will also introduce family reunification as a matter of human rights.5

Given the current state of affairs in the United States, however, comprehensive immigration reform will likely be stalled further. In the meantime, the 40% of Salvadoran children growing up without one or both parents due to migration, as well as their parents, will need Funes and his administration to learn more of the intricacies of their experiences of long-term separation. The stories of youth like Daniel and transnational mothers like Juana, even when they include economic and educational success, are often steeped in pain and longing. Unlike previous administrations, which mainly focused on migration as it relates to remittances, Funes has the opportunity to create policies and promote practices that address the complexity of migration and family separation more holistically.

It is not enough to try to provide limited services to undocumented or only temporarily protected migrants in hopes that they will continue to remit. Funes can move beyond this approach by understanding the sacrifices of these migrants and their families not only as a matter of lobbying for migrants’ rights abroad, but also as a matter deeply affecting the social, economic, and political participation of youth in El Salvador. With the failure to include transnational families’ realities in the national political discourse, in school curricula, or in community events, the energy and creativity of these young people—who do not always live luxuriously and whose parents have not, in most cases, chosen to abandon them—are being wasted. Funes’s government can extend its attention to migration beyond the Ministry of Salvadorans Living Abroad into other areas of government to better serve Salvadorans who have ties to migrants abroad.

Meanwhile, in the United States, while legalization will resolve many problems, migration policies alone cannot compensate for the great gendered disparities that make transnational mothers and their children in El Salvador extremely vulnerable. Only long-term changes in how Salvadorans think about motherhood and fatherhood, and in the expectations they place, legally and socially, on parents, will help ease these disparities.


Leisy J. Abrego is a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. She is writing a book about the effects of gender and U.S. immigration laws on Salvadoran immigrants and their children in El Salvador.


1. Carlos Ramos, “Los jóvenes de El Salvador: Policy Memo,” report published by FLACSO–El Salvador (2008).

2. See Beth Baker-Cristales, Salvadoran Migration to Southern California: Redefining El Hermano Lejano (University Press of Florida, 2004) and Susan Coutin, Nation of Emigrants: Shifting Boundaries of Citizenship in El Salvador and the United States (Cornell University Press, 2007).

3. Sarah Gammage and John Schmitt, “Los inmigrantes mexicanos, salvadoreños y dominicanos en el mercado laboral estadounidense: las brechas de género en los años 1990 y 2000,” report published by the Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL), Unidad de Desarrollo Social (México, D.F., 2004).

4. Leisy J. Abrego, “Economic Well-Being in Salvadoran Transnational Families: How Gender Affects Remittance Practices,” Journal of Marriage and Family 71, no. 4 (November 2009): 1070–85.

5. Agencia EFE (San Salvador), “El Salvador presentará propuesta de reforma migratoria al Gobierno de EEUU,” August 28, 2009.

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