Migration, Assimilation and Identity: The Effects of the Salvadoran Civil War and State Violence on Migration to the U.S.


This research aims to investigate how the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s affected migration patterns from El Salvador to the United States of America and how these migrants have assimilated or are assimilating in the U.S. The research defines assimilation as the “[a]daptation of one ethnic or social group – usually a minority – to another. Assimilation involves the subsuming of language, traditions, values, morals and behavior or even fundamental vital interests.” Examining the change in the ethnic identities of migrants, specifically first and second generation migrants, will bring light to any future migratory patterns returning to El Salvador or potentially permanent plans to settle in the U.S. Interest in this topic stems from a lack of general awareness about the 1980s Civil War and its effects. In the Nations of Emigrants, the Salvadoran population in the United States has been conceptualized as the fifteenth department of El Salvador, because of its sheer size. Yet, there seems to be a lack of generalized knowledge on this population. Also, and significantly, the research aims to give a voice to the stories of many Salvadoran-Americans who have not been able to share their experiences, aiming therefore to create empathy and greater understands for their circumstances. The research does not differentiate between illegal and legal migration, but rather considers anyone who has emigrated from El Salvador to the U.S. as within the population of study.

This research’s data consists of existing personal accounts of migrants, relevant published statistics, and original interviews conducted with the local migrant population. The research will first present a comprehensive case study of the 1980s conflict and its subsequent effects on El Salvador with the goal of then identifying demographics and patterns with a better understanding of their origins.



Thus far, over two million people have emigrated from El Salvador as a result of the civil war. The civil war is said to have been a result of agricultural concerns that led to military action. Leading up to the civil war, El Salvador’s governmental power relied on the success of coffee exports and the relationships of coffee plantation owners with the military. Because of how the power was concentrated in the hands of the coffee exporting sector, the government began to pass reforms “aimed at creating splits in the middle and lower social groupings.” However, the concentration of power in the hands of the elite also created problems as the world became more globalized and modern technology began to play a larger role in coffee growing, thus disproportionately hurting poor, indigenous small-share landholders. This role meant larger rates of unemployment for those previously employed in the coffee industry, which led to increased strength and presence of labor unions in the late 70s. These labor unions combined with student groups and peasant organizations to rebel and seize several government buildings and embassies; however, they did not take into account the consequences of angering existing opposing armed forces. The Salvadoran military, known as the Fuerza Armada de El Salvador (FAES), countered with an armed attack against the perceived insurgency as tensions came to a climax on February 28th, 1977. Protests emerged, advocating for a fair election and military forces in response began to massacre opposing demonstrators, such as the main leftist group the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Thus began a slew of massacres from both “terror squads of the ultra-right” and left-wing guerillas. People even in El Salvador’s middle classes were not spared and, under the guise of a “state of emergency,” the government justified sustained military action against those whom they perceived as leftist insurgents. One civilian wrote that “men were blindfolded and killed in the town’s center” and “young women were taken to the hill nearby, where they were raped, then killed and burned.” She further wrote that she listened to children being choked to death, three of whom were her own. Soon after, in 1979, when Carlos Humberto Romero’s government was overthrown, right-wing death squads increased their activity to about 1,000 killings per month. This directly resulted in the forced displacement of over one million Salvadorans, most of whom were expelled from the country and sought refugee status abroad; about 61,000 died in total. To put these numbers into perspective, close to one-third of the total population was either killed or forced into exile, and this does not include those killed by “government cleansings.” The government and military specifically targeted the peasant populations. Due to these mass movements of communities within El Salvador, communities began to go without water, sanitary services, and electricity, thus exacerbating the existing infrastructural problems. By 1985, over 70% of displaced households lacked permanent employment, and of those, 20% were depending on the employment of children under the age of 16.


*Note, this table is estimated to be 30x beneath actual values due to those who arrived illegally.






The U.S.A. was seen as the primary destination for exiles turned refugees, with Mexico following close behind. This choice is most likely attributed to the perceived economic opportunities in these nations. The Salvadoran government has attempted to recognize exiled citizens and migrants as “allies” rather than enemies because of the economic contributions they make to the home population. About half of all refugees have stated that they would like to return to El Salvador. However, for those that have already returned, conditions were so poor and United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) return camps had such awful conditions that most did not actually stay. Additionally, because those who have returned even just for a small amount of time tended to face discrimination and shame for lack of “patriotism,” most did not end up staying permanently. Most are also punished or targeted by the military upon return. Also, many who did at one point intend to return, have found that their villages have been completely destroyed. Leaving and returning is seen as a massive betrayal by the government and thus those who have been identified as returnees are usually targeted and killed. American deportations are seen as a source of increased conflict violence in El Salvador. Therefore, the cyclical migration process is much more feasible.



Most Salvadoran emigrants who fled to Mexico or the U.S.A. were recognized by the UNHCR as having refugee status. However, between Mexico’s refusal to acknowledge the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Refugee Protocol, over 1 million Salvadorans were left at risk of deportation. Also, the U.S.A. did not help the situation as their immigration policy in the late 70s and early 80s only allowed in 20,000 immigrants from any one country in the Western Hemisphere.

Refugees of the Salvadoran Civil War and Salvadoran state violence have been categorized into three groups. Emigres are those who leave and do not return, while return migrants return to resettle and repatriate in El Salvador, and circulators, who migrate from El Salvador to various different countries with no specified end destination. Adrian Bailey and Joshua Hane cite most migrants from this crisis as being circulators who made “short-term myopic” decisions to escape the ongoing war. They also argue that the initial choices and forces behind this displacement affect future behavior due to higher rates of education and younger ages, providing them with the characteristics to continue to move from place to place. The majority of these circulators migrate with economic goals in an effort to “maximize family welfare and practice risk aversion.” These Salvadoran migrants relocate in one of the largest economic migrant circulation systems between the U.S.A., Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In the Washington D.C. metro area alone, a 1995 study cited a population upwards of 150,000 migrants from El Salvador.

However, despite sustaining themselves in a cyclical migration pattern, issues with English proficiency stunt migrants’ mobility. In a 1982 study by Guy Poitras, 259 Salvadoran refugees were interviewed and only 22% of the respondents could speak English “well” or “very well.” This, in combination with having less education than many non-Salvadoran-Americans, gives migrants limited social mobility in U.S. society. Also, their obligation to family members in El Salvador deters upward mobility. In terms of sheer numbers though, it is predicted that the Salvadoran population will continue to increase steadily as migrants gain legality and can begin to petition for family members.



The journey of the migrants is not an easy one, with many forced to travel by foot for the majority of the way. Many people are lost along the way to coyotes, drowning, abuse, or murder when they return home. Some are literally dismembered by trains or have their fingers sliced while jumping fences. Mexican officials have also reported finding bloated bodies of those who have perished along the way, with their identification documents on their chest so that relatives at home can be notified. Their journey is classified as clandestine since migrants travel below the radar for safety. Many are also subject to the will of smugglers, who can detain or extort them. Most migrants travel illegally, thus forcing them to keep quiet about any injustices committed against them along the way. These migrants are multidimensional. Some gain legality to travel through Mexico, but not to arrive in the U.S. Some also leave unbeknownst to the people of their hometowns, shrouding their journey in mystery and creating more dangerous and vulnerable circumstances for the travels themselves. Also, many take out loans to finance their travels, which can become a major burden even if the journey is successful. One man named Miguel Lopez Herrera worked for six months at an hourly wage of $4.25 to repay a $750 loan he took out to finance his journey. The majority of people are willing to undertake these risks. In an interview conducted in August 2000, every one of three Salvadorans was looking for a way to leave the country. The people who facilitate the smuggling are called coyotes, defined as smugglers or a smuggling group. The coyotes generally use illegal vehicles to transport migrants and sometimes force migrants to carry drugs across the border. Some have even begun to refuse to take women or children, because they believe they are too likely to die during the journey. In an interview with NPR, Rey Kowalski says the price of smuggling across the Mexico-U.S. border is about $2,500. However, after crossing, the coyotes sometimes hold migrants for ransom if they understand their family members are already in the U.S. waiting for them to arrive. Also, many who arrive do not even know they have illegally immigrated to begin with. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is trying to improve school infrastructure and educational resources about the dangers of coyotes to try to decrease this practice of human trafficking. They, along with other organizations and the host governments, are trying to limit migration and work on remedying the causes of migration in El Salvador itself.

As stated earlier, there is a level of multidimensionality in the journey from El Salvador to the U.S. Many migrants arrive to Mexico legally, and the problem arises in their crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border. It is not illegal to leave Mexico without papers, therefore, many migrants do not realize that crossing into the U.S. is illegal. I had a chance to interview Salvadoran case worker Marina Ortiz recounted the story of her three siblings who made the trek to the U.S. in 2013. Her three siblings were being threatened by the government and chose to walk from El Salvador to the United States. When they arrived in the U.S., none of them applied for asylum. Ortiz says they did not know applying for asylum was even an option, and therefore they still remain undocumented today. The three live in a community of people with stories similar to theirs in New York city. None of their bachelor’s degrees translated to the U.S. educational system, so between that and a lack of English proficiency, finding work is a difficult task.

On top of being unaware of their rights, if they make the journey, many migrants have access only to limited resources. According to an interview I conducted with United We Dream Policy and Advocacy Analyst Zenen Perez, oftentimes migrants will give the little money they have left to a business that will claim to help them with their asylum process. Later, the business will have disappeared entirely, along with their money. Perez said that, in 2014, an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse observed that less than 30% of Central American women and children had access to legal representation. Consequently, less than 1.5% of those were allowed to stay in the United States, compared to the 25% who were allowed to stay that did have attorneys.



To this day, Salvadorans are mostly labeled as economic migrants and thus still face a great risk of deportation in the United States. Many come to the U.S. seeking protection from threats or possible death back home, but U.S. policymakers cite their illegal entrance via Mexico as evidence of their economic goals, rather than their legal eligibility for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, asylum seekers Maria Yolanda Mejillo and Pedro Antonio Leibo strongly contest this point. I had the opportunity to talk to Maria and Pedro, and in late 2013, their second son was targeted by the military for having graduated and earned his bachelor’s degree. As such, he made the decision to walk from El Salvador to the United States, where he believed he could be granted asylum. At the Texas border, due to increased border controls, he was turned away. In 2012, the Consequence Delivery System (CDS) was implemented by border enforcement, in which people caught crossing the border were less apt to be allowed their request for political asylum and underwent “expedited removal” instead. As an educated individual who knew about the asylum process, one can assume he fell victim to this system at the Texas border. Border patrol officers have also more than doubled in number since 2004, and even drones are being implemented to survey the area. Most of the people who arrive at the border are also abused, with up to 25% of arriving migrants reporting such instances. In the same year that border patrol doubled, a panel presentation was held in El Salvador where many people posed the question “If they say it’s a crime for us to travel to the United States without papers, then why don’t they give us papers?” As of right now, one can only apply for asylum once inside the United States. It is not economically feasible for people to arrive by plane or other safe means though, and sometimes travelling by foot is the only option.

The Salvadoran military kidnapped and killed the interviewee’s son upon his return on February 18th, 2014. To this day, his family does not know the kind of death he suffered or where his body was buried, only that he is dead. Following this, the oldest and youngest sons, who also have bachelor’s degrees, fled the country. The two walked from El Salvador to New York, successfully crossing the border. The two have not had their bachelor’s degree translated and currently work at a local bakery, waiting for their parents to immigrate and hopefully be granted asylum. In March 2016, Mejillo and her husband arrived in New York and applied for asylum with the help of a case worker, hoping to be a part of the over 60% of cases that are granted asylum in New York.

Stories like these are at the heart of heated policy debates, as the children of Mejillo and Leibo came to the United States to utilize the education they had acquired. They knew if they remained in El Salvador, they would face government persecution, but at the same time, would risk economic stagnation without the opportunity to use their bachelor’s degrees. As William Stanley states, “The motivations of individuals are complex: some individuals who leave El Salvador out of fear may also hope for economic success in the United States.” Additionally, migration from El Salvador is not exclusively rooted in the conflict of the civil war. Before 1980, people were already migrating for economic reasons on a seasonal basis. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) statistics show a sharp increase in migration following the start of the war, however, indicating motives that are greater than just economic goals. Reports from many global organizations point to fear as the primary motive for migration although it is difficult to find precise data on this. Also, more than one thousand Salvadorans were killed by military forces in 1979 alone, and since then, those numbers have only grown. The current atmosphere of fear makes it easy to label people as economic migrants and deny them asylum, but the extreme human rights violations occurring in El Salvador force huge numbers of people into exile and illustrate the deeper fear that exists.



A 2009 study found a strong correlation between major depressive episodes and downward social mobility of migrants. Since most migrants are not able to bring their papers validating their education over to the U.S., cannot fund returning to college, or cannot afford to take a recertification exam, many are forced to work jobs for which they are highly overqualified. Unfortunately, this comes in the form of menial jobs such as manual labor or janitorial work. This creates extreme downward social mobility. In this study, most migrants felt they faced downward mobility as opposed to stable lateral or upward mobility. This means that these migrants were far more likely to experience at least one major depressive episode, controlling for exogenous effects. This was also found to be especially true for migrants to which finding a job was of major importance to them.



Most of these migrants are in the lower classes of the U.S. economy because of institutional discrimination. Since many employers are aware that these migrants are unauthorized, there have been reports of them sending empty checks to migrants or forcing them to work overtime. The knowledge of their lack of authorization can also lead to worksite raids and sometimes deportation. This is incredibly problematic because, for those with American-born children, their children legally have U.S. citizenship. This fractures families and has severe traumatic consequences. Furthermore, a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) study shows that second-generation Salvadorans actually see a lower level of employment than their parents. The second-generation population cites 70% of those under eighteen working, and this number drops exorbitantly to a mere 30% after the eighteenth birthday. This is especially interesting as the second generation tends to see higher education levels than their parents. However, overall, their median household income was about $10,000 less than the average American household, indicating that they were entering the workforce with lower paying jobs than the average American.

Returning to the Ortiz family, their story is not unique and most migrants are in situations similar to theirs. MPI says these communities are called ethnic enclaves, and although they make the migrants feel safe, they result in social and linguistic isolation and can thus propagate institutional discrimination. Understanding the scope of ethnic communities allows businesses to limit these communities’ access to better jobs, quality schools and viable social networks. Also, they can be left out of zones of insurance coverage and not covered by personal physicians, creating a system of health effects as well, according to an MPI report.

Many of these migrants are classified as unaccompanied minors because coyotes incorrectly advertise the migration process. As was mentioned, many migrants are not aware of the legitimate process by which to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. As a result, coyotes capitalize on this and “increasingly influence the rate of migration through more aggressive and misleading marketing.” For instance, coyotes will tell families that if children are sent over unaccompanied, they will be able to request for their families to come over for reunification and as a result be allowed to stay in the United States. This however, is not true. This information was collected by looking at USAID focus groups, surveys, and deportee discussions. Along with information published by other organizations, this shows that, although there are many factors that push migrants to come to the U.S., they do not see a main one.

One major issue related to this kind of migration is the fact that many of these children can be so young that they do not know exactly where they came from, or only know the name of a larger nearby city instead of their city of origin. Additionally, there is a huge language barrier that limits progress in reunification with families or finding basic information about these children.

The language barrier is of course not only prevalent in deterring family reunification, but basic mobility once in the United States. This greatly affects migrant demographics as many states utilize the high school tracking system and students who are not fluent in English, get categorized as English Language Learners, and put on lower tracks. NPR follows the story of a student by the name of Alejandra Galindo who is a gifted student that was put in lower level classes because of her lack of English fluency. English Language Learners, or ELLs, get put in separate classes from native, white students. From a young age, kids are exposed to institutionalized racism which has severe psychological effects. Also, they are told that because of the color of their skin, they do not have as much potential these other students. ELLs are often not tested to be gifted, and as undocumented parents are not always informed about different tracks and programs in the school system, these children’s talents can be overlooked. Educators in Arizona, a state where 80,000 gifted students have been identified, say there is a moral obligation to better serve ELLs and create funding for those who are gifted within the state.



Existing statistics and research seem to show that the patterns of migration from El Salvador we have seen in the past thirty years shows no indication of letting up. Publications have shown increased gang violence pushing people to leave, and the increased number of deportations contributes to violence at home. Interviewed individuals say that when someone is found out to have tried to leave and then forced to return, they become a target for the government and local gangs. This cycle is vicious, and there currently does not seem to exist a solution to break it. Given current deportation numbers and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S., the cycle of deportation and a hometown push to leave will most likely continue. These numbers will only continue to rise in coming years as more people seek to gain better economic opportunities and a viable life in the United States, something that is not feasible in their countries of origin.



This research began with the aim of uncovering questions of assimilation and integration into the U.S. from El Salvador, but more questions arose as it began. Statistics showed surprising downward mobility from second-generation children of migrants, who, in theory, should have been more integrated. This raises questions about what is failing in our current methods of assimilation, and how can this be improved. Furthermore, there is much to be said about the debate between economic migrants and asylum seekers, and how this plays into admittance into the U.S. Based on the firsthand accounts of Salvadoran migrants, it is evident that these people are first and foremost asylum seekers. Although many do try to create better economic opportunities, this is only a latent factor to the overarching issue of violence and instability in El Salvador.

In January of 2016, the Restoring Family Links branch of the Red Cross published an article about the increase in gang violence and environmental concerns as a push factor for Salvadoran migration to the U.S. The U.S. has attempted to stem migration by publishing ads to warn migrants against doing so. In tandem with this, the U.S. has increased deportation raids. However, most of these raids have been targeted on newly arrived families awaiting asylum as opposed to those with criminal records. Hopefully, seeing these new statistics, the argument for Salvadorans as asylum seekers will gain more traction seeing the violence and issues they face currently from their nation of origin.

In the future, research should aim to fill gaps in terms of how these people are integrating, as there was not much real life data on this. Additionally, as the second-generation gets older, their progress and mobility should be tracked as well as for their kids to see patterns among the generations that are living in the United States, and how they perceive their own mobility.

The migrants from El Salvador all have their own incredibly complex stories, some unfortunately with similarly saddening outcomes. Hopefully, as more of their stories come to light to humanize their journey and explain their experiences, people can use the compassion they use for those around them for them as well to help them integrate and achieve the quality of life they are working so hard for.