Survey of Salvadoran Migration Trends

By Joseph J. Kolb, December 19, 2016

A recently released survey conducted by an El Salvadoran marketing and research firm has revealed trends and attitudes among past and prospective immigrants to the United States.

The report – titled "The Situation of Migration in El Salvador" – was conducted by CS-Sondea and appeared as a two-page spread in the December 15, 2016 edition of the El Mundo newspaper (pp. 12-13), a major daily in San Salvador. It surveyed 930 individuals who were over the age of 18, and were planning to immigrate to the U.S. or had either been or known someone who was deported back to El Salvador after entering the United States illegally.

Among the more compelling results of the CS-Sondea survey are:

  • Only 3 percent migrate to be reunified with family members. The main drivers are economic opportunities (53 percent) and insecurity (42 percent). So while violence continues to ravage El Salvador, the projected 20 percent decrease in the homicide rate for 2016 seems to have tempered fears somewhat, with economic opportunities as more of a motivator in a country where average monthly salaries hover at less than $400.

  • Fifty-two percent of the respondents said they would migrate illegally to the U.S. compared to 46 who would follow the legal entry procedures. It was also revealed that while they would enter illegally, 81 percent said they feared doing this without documentation. The survey did not reveal what fosters this fear, though we can assume the reasons include the potential loss of $5,000-$7,000 or more paid to coyotes – alien smugglers – to lead them north, the prospect of apprehension and deportation by U.S. Border Patrol, or subsequent deportation once established inside the U.S. The share of Salvadorans known to have entered illegally, based on apprehensions, was much higher than the 52 percent in the survey, suggesting that what respondents say and do are different things. In 2014, 19,273 El Salvadorans were granted Legal Permanent Resident status (green cards). This amounted to only 2 percent of those who immigrated legally to the U.S. In the same year, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 31,237 UACs (unaccompanied minors) and family units from El Salvador crossing the Southwest border (not to mention an additional 30,000 or so other Salvadorans), indicating illegal entry is still the preferred method.

  • Given that the majority of immigrant routes north are controlled by criminal organizations, it's no surprise that 51 percent of the respondents said they are concerned about being a victim en route to the U.S. Thirty-six percent feared death. Only 2 percent feared being abandoned by the coyote. The point here is that it is rare that an immigrant will even make the journey, or be permitted to, without paying a coyote.

  • Considering the massive wave of unaccompanied children continuing to flood the Southwest border, with no abatement imminent, respondents were asked whether they would entrust their child to a coyote. Sixty-percent said they wouldn't trust a coyote and only 16 percent said they would. Again, while there may be trepidation, parents are still handing their children off to these nefarious individuals; in FY 2014 the Border Patrol apprehended a total of 68,541 UACs (including Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans, along with Salvadorans) along the Southwest border. If a family paid a coyote $5,000 to have their child guided north, these criminal enterprises raked in no less than $342,705,000 in one year. This does not take into account family units or adult individuals.

  • Nearly 60 percent of those deported would return to the United States. The report does not specify whether they would attempt it legally or illegally on the subsequent attempts. Based on prevailing data, the presumption is the illegal route.

The results of the CS-Sondea study demonstrate a continued disregard for the immigration laws and policies of the United States by the majority of this diaspora, regardless of their motives. There were no answers or recommendations.

What the study does not reveal is Mexico's responsibility and even complicity in this crisis. With no apparent slowdown of Central American migrants appearing at the U.S. border, if the new administration wants to comprehensively tackle illegal immigration it must look beyond the U.S.-Mexico border to that between Mexico and Guatemala, where the journey begins for Central American immigrants. This could be an opportunity for the incoming Trump administration to negotiate a more comprehensive southern Mexico border security initiative with an economic incentive plan based on mitigating the flow of Central Americans north.

The study also reveals a transnational criminal network that needs to be dismantled. In speaking to law enforcement officials in El Salvador, I was informed there is a more concerted effort by the pandillas (gangs) such as MS-13, to control the people-smuggling trade. It was also reported in 2013, before the major flood of UACs, that MS-13 established an alliance with the notorious Las Zetas drug trafficking organization, which essentially controls the eastern side of Mexico where the migrants travel through.