Commentary: The difference between an immigrant and refugee

Wendy spoke English and worked in the health clinic in the parish of Maria, Madre de los Pobres in the impoverished barrio of La Chacra in San Salvador, El Salvador.  Since 1991, I have been visiting the parish as a home away from home.

In the past, the health clinic was full on Monday mornings. People came to get medications or see the dentist. Pupusas were sold outside. But in December 2015, the place was empty. The people would not walk the streets for fear of gang violence. Children would not go to school nor would adults attend evening meetings.

I asked Wendy if she could walk with me to visit my friend Isabelle, even though I knew that doing so could be risky. We were at the corner where we would take a left and go over the small bridge. Then we heard rapid pops. We asked the person in her doorway if she thought those were fireworks. She grimly replied that they were gunshots. We turned around and headed back to the parish at a quick pace. There we saw the parish staff with terror on their faces.

What is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee? An immigrant is a person who chooses to resettle in another country but a refugee is one who has been forced to flee his homeland in the face of violence and death.

There are 2 million Salvadorans who took up residence in the United States during and since the 12-year civil war in El Salvador. At first, we said they were immigrants coming to America as so many had come before them. But, over time it became clear that they were refugees fleeing horrendous human rights abuses, torture and murder. These refugees were not given asylum in the U.S. They were given temporary protective status (TPS) that deferred but did not eliminate the danger of deportation.

The U.S. was not an idle bystander during the civil war in El Salvador. We trained soldiers who later committed massacres. We trained a soldier who participated in the murders of six Jesuit priests. Later, we declined to deport Salvadorans because the Salvadoran government could not absorb so many people back into a struggling economy and because money sent home by Salvadorans in the United States was a major factor in the Salvadoran economy.

In 1987 during the civil war, the U.S. sent $557.8 million in foreign aid to El Salvador. In 2016, we sent $30.8 million, down from $55.6 million in 2015. We were generous in the pursuit of war but stingy in the pursuit of peace.

The peace accords at the end of the civil war addressed some major issues in Salvadoran society but did not address the underlying economic issues. The benefits of peace did not bring economic renewal to La Chacra.

Extortion is illegal in El Salvador but if you live in desperate circumstances and have learned to solve your problems at the point of a gun, it’s one job you can do and that’s available.

My friend Nancy is a Salvadoran and has a green card. Her Salvadoran husband is now a U.S. citizen. Nancy has two brothers living in a barrio like La Chacra in San Salvador. Her brothers are being recruited into a gang. Joining the gang will, at best, put them on a path to prison and, at worst, on a path to death in armed clashes with rival gangs or combined police-and-army patrols. They’re told if they refuse to join the gang, they and their families will be killed. Like many youth in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, they flee.

Are these youth immigrants or refugees? Are they coming to the U.S. to seek a job at McDonald’s or to avoid certain death? The answer is rather clear.

It is easy to dismiss a faceless mass of people declared illegal immigrants. It is not so easy when you know them as Jose or Maria and you know their stories and their fears.

Tom Howarth is a frequent visitor to El Salvador and serves on
the Board of Salvadoran Enterprises for Women.