On silences: Salvadoran refugees then and now


US military and economic intervention in El Salvador has set the conditions for mass migration since the 1980s. Both then and now, despite well-documented human rights abuses, the US government refuses to categorize Salvadorans as refugees. Weaving in personal and political narratives, this essay examines the parallels of violence against refugees in the 1980s and the present. It also analyzes the silences created through the denial of state terror and the political and collective consequences of these silences for Salvadorans in the US.

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    In neighboring Guatemala, by the end of the thirty-six-year genocidal war, at least 200,000 people had been killed (Jonas and Rodríguez 2015).

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    Refugees apply for admission from outside the borders of the country of destination. Asylum seekers apply for legalization from within the desired country of destination.

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    Cuban exiles, for example, were granted refugee status, helping them to translate their various forms of capital to their new home in the US (Portes and Bach 1985). Refugee status, I understand, is certainly not an all-encompassing solution. Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who fled state terror similar to that of Salvadorans and Guatemalans in their homelands were granted refugee status and all the financial and other assistance associated with it. Refugee status alone, however, has not provided sufficient relief to fully counteract the repercussions of trauma (Sack et al. 1999). And as the resources allotted to refugees dwindle, the insufficient support is evident in the experiences of Iraqi, Burmese, and Bhutanese refugees (Mirza et al. 2014). The Trump administration, moreover, spent its first few weeks in power aiming to block the entrance of refugees from multiple countries.

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    President Trump also contributes to this misrepresentation (see http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2016-donald-trump/).

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    Violence against sexual minorities, too, may be categorized under this gendered violence (see, for example, Wilets 1996).

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    Documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Cárcamo, captures the stories of refugee women, children, and members of the LGBTQI community in her forthcoming documentary, Los Eternos Indocumentados. See the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJyjL7I2DyQ.

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    Northern Central America is also hostage to neoliberal economic policies and drug war efforts that produce structural forms of violence that, while less recognizable as sources of violence (Torres-Rivas 1998), nonetheless cause great generalized harm.

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    The newspaper is ElSalvador.com. http://www.elsalvador.com/articulo/sucesos/cuatro-meses-han-dejado-cuerpos-embolsados-111143.

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    Author’s translation.

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    These figures are especially disturbing given that El Salvador is only about 8,000 square miles—less than twice the size of Los Angeles County (4700 square miles) and about the size of Massachusetts.

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    See the August 2014 statement by Philip T. Miller, Assistant Director of Field Operations for the Enforcement and Removal Operations of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, https://immigrantjustice.org/sites/immigrantjustice.org/files/Government%20No%20Bond%20Declarations.pdf. This, in turn, set the stage for the expansion of enforcement efforts under the Trump administration.

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    https://immigrantjustice.org/sites/immigrantjustice.org/files/Government%20No%20Bond%20Declarations.pdf. At the time of this writing, the Trump administration has moved to block, through Executive Order, the admission of refugees and immigrants from Syria and other Muslim-majority countries (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states), while also halting the Central American Minors program (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/02/central-america-young-refugees-cam-trump-travel-ban).

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    Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is an executive action that grants a subset of undocumented young people access to state identification and a work permit, while clarifying that they are not a priority category for deportation.

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This essay was born as a presentation at the Keywords in Migration Studies Conference at UC Santa Cruz in 2016. I thank the organizers for the encouragement to explore new approaches to intellectual work and for bringing such a wonderful group of scholars together. I am indebted to the fierce organizers of the Human Rights Alliance for Child Refugees and Families for their revolutionary vision and love for our community. Always generous, Cecilia Menjívar was kind enough to read through a draft of this paper. I am most grateful for Carlos Colorado’s support for this piece.

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Correspondence to Leisy J. Abrego.

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Abrego, L.J. On silences: Salvadoran refugees then and now. Lat Stud 15, 73–85 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41276-017-0044-4

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  • Salvadorans
  • Central Americans
  • Gender
  • State terror
  • Refugees
  • Migration