Salvadorans Migrate for Economic Reasons

Concerns about violence are not at the forefront

By Kausha Luna on October 2, 2018

El Salvador is scheduled to hold a presidential election in February 2019, and the campaign cycle has begun. Recently, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted presidential hopeful Carlos Calleja in Washington, D.C., who spoke on several topics, including immigration.

Carlos Calleja is a Salvadoran businessman, an heir to the country's largest supermarket brand, and graduated with degrees from Middlebury College and New York University. Calleja is running under El Salvador's main conservative party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). According to a CID/ Gallup poll, Calleja is ranked second with 20 percent support. The front-runner is Nayib Bukele, former mayor of El Salvador's capital, running under the Great Alliance for National Unity party (GANA). For the last decade, El Salvador has been ruled by the former guerrilla group Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which is ranked third in the poll.

On emigration, Calleja highlighted the need to give Salvadorans the opportunity to "grow and realize the Salvadoran dream within [Salvadoran] borders." He then proposed, "The best foreign policy the United States could have, the best investment [it] can make, with regards to [immigration], is to help us create opportunities, create jobs, create a future for our kids in El Salvador." It should be noted that the topic of violence was absent from the candidate's talking points on migration; he emphasized the need for economic opportunity. However, while sharing a brief anecdote, Calleja did mention some youth have given up on the agricultural sector and subsequently joined gangs, highlighting the interconnectivity of economic and security issues.

Calleja's emphasis on the need for economic development, as it relates to migration, is not misplaced. According to the "National Survey on Migration and Remittances: El Salvador 2017" by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Salvadorans primarily migrate for economic reasons. The three principal reasons reported as causes for Salvadoran emigration were as follows: Employment, better living conditions, and remittances. Because IOM recognizes that migration can have multiple causes, survey respondents could mention more than one reason, so the sum of individual percentages is greater than 100. Of those surveyed, 73.8 percent reported employment as a motive for migration. Meanwhile, 48.2 percent migrated, or intended to migrate, in order to attain better living conditions. And 22.3 percent said they migrated in order to be able to send remittances back to El Salvador. In contrast, only 16.3 percent of respondents identified insecurity as reason to migrate. About 9 percent mentioned family reunification as a factor for leaving El Salvador; 3.2 percent identified other reasons.

These survey results characterize Salvadorans who migrated, or tried to migrate, abroad during the period 2011-2017 (post economic crisis in the United States). The survey was distributed across the country's 14 departments, covering both rural and urban areas, with a sample size of 2,554 households and an 89 percent response rate. Fieldwork was conducted between August 28 and September 20, 2017.

As the survey report shows, migration is multi-causal. However, the immigration narrative in the United States has crafted a mono-causal "migration crisis" — that cause being violence. As a result, causes such as economic migration and family reunification are glaringly absent from the conversation. But as the Salvadoran case demonstrates, economic reasons and family reunification can be, and often are, predominant push and pull factors. Without recognizing these issues within the immigration debate, policies seeking to repair the U.S. immigration system will fail.