USULUTAN, EL SALVADOR — Jesús Antonio Chevarría Orellana recently returned to his hometown of Berlín, Usulután, El Salvador after trying to journey to the United States alone. “They grabbed us in Tapachula. In México,” says the 17-year-old, playing shyly with a stick in the dirt floor of his family’s kitchen. The journey was hard, he says, and mostly on foot.
“They come empachados,” his mother interjects, explaining that Jesús and other immigrants are so unaccustomed to healthy-sized portions of food upon their return that they throw up everything they eat. Were they given food and water at the detention facility in Mexico? “Water, yes. Food, yes. They gave us hard tortillas. Maybe they were 50 days old,” he says, laughing.
He wants to make it to the United States, he says, because of the opportunities to work there. “From when I was little I’ve been working around here,” he says, speaking of his family’s farm, where they grow corn and beans. “Maybe since 7 years old.” But subsistence farming makes them no money, he and his mother say.
“One harvests the beans and they aren’t worth anything when you pick them,” she says. “They’re worth something when we have run out of them. And the fertilizer is expensive.” Jesús nods in agreement. This is why he wants to go to the United States. “Because of the poverty here, always. There are no jobs at all here.”
It is easy to understand why Jesús feels that the cycle of poverty his family is caught in is inescapable. When the harvest in this area is relatively plentiful, as it was last year, the corn and beans that farmers sell in order to purchase everything else their family needs—other foodstuffs, soap, clothing, school supplies, water—are worth next to nothing. When the harvest is bad, or when an entire year has passed since they brought in their last crop, the families here do not have any beans or corn left over to sell so that they can purchase other basic necessities—even though a reduced supply means that the prices for the corn and beans are higher. This harvest season will be particularly difficult for Jesús and his family, since a drought has destroyed much of the corn crop. When asked what his cornfield is like, he says, “a little bit ruined,” never glancing up from the floor.
Jesús spent 11 days in a Mexican detention facility, was never provided legal counsel, and was never given any kind of official immigration hearing. In the end, after speaking briefly with a “consul,” he was bused unceremoniously back to El Salvador.
Current discussion in the United States regarding whether Central American children crossing the border alone should be allowed to stay is often centered around the question of security: those that have suffered direct threats of violence from gangs may warrant international protection, asylum, or refugee status, in the very narrow circumstances in which they are fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
It is even more difficult to argue that socioeconomic conditions warrant asylum. But a recent U.N. High Commission on Refugee report argues that some children leaving situations of truly extreme poverty may also qualify for international protection needs:
Children’s very survival and development depend on their ability to access adequate food, shelter, health care and education. Human rights also protect the enjoyment of basic economic, social and cultural rights, which include the ability to meaningfully engage in social, cultural and religious activities. Violation of any of these rights may cause the need for international protection where not realizing minimum core standards, such as, for example, denial of a child’s right to an adequate standard of living, including access to food, water or housing, could lead to an intolerable situation threatening that child’s development and survival.
The report does not carry legal weight in the United States’ asylum process, and even the UNHCR recommendation only applies to those with an absolute lack of basic needs that threatens their survival. But some argue that the United States’ definition of refugee could incorporate some of these most desperate immigrants by considering children or other subsets of persecuted immigrants a “social group.”
Jesús says that he feels safe from violence in his small village. The same would not be true, however, if he went to San Salvador or San Miguel. “If you go to San Salvador and you don’t have family that comes to get you wherever you’re going…there they kill [young people],” his mother says. When asked if he thinks it is safer to make the long, hard trek to the United States or to try to find work in a large Salvadoran city, Jesús says, unequivocally, that going to the United States is the safer option.
Caught between the lack of basic access to water, food, and education in their small villages and the ongoing crime and violence in the major cities, many young people like Jesús see leaving their country as the only viable option to escape poverty.
Jesús is not angry that he was deported. But upon being asked if it would be worth trying to reach the United States again, despite the risks, Jesús says, without hesitation, “Yes.” His dream when reaching the United States? “To work to help my family here.”
Katherine Pater is a Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor and mission co-worker serving with Our Sister Parish, an ecumenical mission that seeks to build connections and solidarity between the impoverished rural people of Berlín, El Salvador and churches in central Iowa.