A few months before his death, Óscar Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, penned a pastoral letter to the priests, nuns, and laity of El Salvador. He urged Catholic religious leaders to “accompany” the people of El Salvador. Romero’s instructions were clear: The people were struggling to build organizations to transform society; the best way for religious leaders to continue serving them was to accompany them in such efforts.
Charging his clergy he wrote, “We want to help them evaluate and question their choices, from the perspective of gospel values.” Sadly, Romero was assassinated in 1980 after speaking out against violence in the lead-up to the Salvadoran civil war and publicly taking the United States government to task for its “economic and military support” of the country’s right-wing junta.
I have been thinking about Romero and his idea of accompaniment a lot over the past weeks. In July I traveled to El Salvador to represent the Unitarian Universalist Association on a delegation organized by our longtime partner organization, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON). The purpose of the trip was to better understand the realities of migration from Central America to the United States: the reasons for migration, the experiences of deportees, and what life is like for people who never leave El Salvador.
The most emotionally charged and clarifying moments of the trip came when we visited two of the country’s repatriation centers, one for deportees from the United States and the other for deportees from Mexico. In these sites feelings ran raw and many of the deportees wore expressions of trauma, humiliation, anger, fear, and shame. In these centers the all-too-human costs of the United States’ foreign and immigration policy were personified in hundreds of tired bodies.
The first center we visited is on the outskirts of the El Salvador International Airport. Every day, and twice on Wednesdays, a plane arrives. It is filled with as many as 120 deportees from the United States. Transported in chains, the deportees are processed inside a squat cinder-block building before being released. They are interviewed by immigration officials. The Salvadoran police check to see if they have local criminal charges outstanding. Then they are allowed to make a phone call and are reunited with their meager belongings.
Whether they have been in the United States for a few weeks or twenty years the deportees all bring the same things back with them—whatever they were carrying when they were picked up by U.S. immigration authorities. Everything they have fits into uniform red mesh bags. Some clutched their bags tightly and others laid them casually at their feet while we talked with them. Their stories shared a uniform note of despondence. They left El Salvador with hope; they have been returned to the problems they fled.
El Salvador is a country burdened by violence and poverty. For the last twenty years its per-capita murder rate has been amongst the highest in the world. The government can’t control the country’s gang problem. Migrants living in the United States make more in a day than many Salvadorans make in several weeks. In 2012 the small sums that Salvadoran migrants sent home to their families totaled $3.6 billion, representing more than 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Poverty and violence were present in the stories we heard from the deportees. One young man used to operate a bus with two of his friends. He was the driver. One of his friends collected fares, and the other tended to the passengers. One day gang members came on board and robbed and killed the fare collector. The driver and his other friend were left unharmed. A few days later the gang members made it known that they planned to kill the two friends, because they had witnessed the murder. The gang killed the bus driver’s friend while he ate dinner in a restaurant. The bus driver decided to leave for the United States as soon as he heard about his friend’s death. When we met him he shared that he had just called his mother to let her know that he was back. She told him it was too dangerous to come home. Tears in his eyes, he admitted that he didn’t know what to do next.
I spoke to another young man who lived in the United States for six years, working as a day laborer. Each month he sent back $600 to support his mother and two children. In El Salvador he will be lucky to make $10 a day, if he can find work at all.
The second center we visited is in the capital city of San Salvador. We arrived just after a bus filled with accompanied and unaccompanied minors who had been deported from Mexico. We saw a woman nursing a newborn baby. There were three boys traveling together, without an adult; the oldest couldn’t have been more than fourteen, the youngest was probably eight or nine. This was no place for children. It felt like the holding area of a penitentiary.
Throughout my time in El Salvador I was aware of the vast difference in privilege between myself and the deportees we met. I can travel freely between El Salvador and the United States. They cannot. A similar gulf exists between NDLON organizers and the deportees. Many of the NDLON organizers were once undocumented immigrants to the United States. Now they have the kind of status—citizenship and permanent residency—that allows them to freely cross borders.
Thinking about the gap between the members of the delegation and migrants deported from the United States brings me back to Romero. He managed, at great personal risk, to stand with the poorest and most oppressed members of society. He encouraged them in their political action while, at the same time, challenging them to adhere to their highest moral standards. He was a liberation theologian who believed in “the preferential option for the poor,” the idea that the divine is most fully present amongst the most marginalized members of society.
My trip to El Salvador filled me with more questions than answers: Can Unitarian Universalists choose the preferential option for the poor? Starting in 1978 the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee began working with Romero. After his death, and through the civil war, the Service Committee continued to play an active role in El Salvador by taking congressional delegations to witness the impact of United States military assistance. Has our work in El Salvador ended? Can we, as Romero urged, “accompany” migrants and deportees on their often forced and dehumanizing journeys, if not physically then by working for humane immigration? What is the “gospel” we have to share with them? As religious people we are called to find the answers to these questions.