Francisco Altschul is El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States; Julio Ligorria is Guatemala’s ambassador. Altschul was a spokesman for El Salvador’s Democratic Revolutionary Front and a counselor for the city of San Salvador.
Ligorria has a background in business and media.
Grant Reeher (GR): In the past year, there has been a surge in unaccompanied children from Central America seeking entrance into the United States. The issue of temporarily housing some of these children here in Syracuse generated some local controversy until the plan was dropped by the federal government. Why has there been this recent surge?
Francisco Altschul (FA): There are generally three reasons (for immigration), and they are all happening in El Salvador. One is the security issue: the violence, particularly the gang violence, generated by narco-traffic activity. Second, the need to look for better living conditions and opportunities, economic opportunities. Unfortunately, we have a large population that still doesn’t have the quality of life that they are entitled to. The third one is the need for family reunification. There are over 2.2 million El Salvadorans living here in the United States, many of them for 12 to 15 years. They left their young kids back then, and now there’s a logical wish to reunify the family. But all these factors do not explain the recent surge. I would say that the 65,000 children that have arrived since October are here because it’s a people-trafficking issue. The smugglers, the “coyotaje” as we call them, or “polleros” as they are called in Mexico, have taken the role of telling people if your kid comes to the States, that he will not be deported. Of course, this is not the case. We know that we are doing campaigns in order to educate the people about the risks and about the consequences of doing this. But the coyotaje are doing this because it has become an extremely profitable business.
Julio Ligorria (JL): We have to remember Central America, only 30 years ago, was a hot-spot in the Cold War. The Soviet Union sent weapons to the rebels, and the United States sent support to the official governments. This developed a war in the region. This conflict developed a violence, a culture of violence. We still have this culture of violence in the region, in Guatemala, in El Salvador. We lost our social fabric, we lost our economies. We lost a lot of infrastructure. We lost institutionality. Our governments tried to rebuild all of those important aspects, but at the same time have to attend to these real social problems. People don’t immigrate because they want to come to Disney World. People immigrate because it is a necessity. Our governments do not have enough resources to attend to all the people.
GR: There were some protests in Syracuse against temporarily housing the children here. People expressed concerns over the possible use of public resources locally for this, and there were general concerns about supporting illegal aliens. What would you say to those who were protesting?
FA: I would follow up what Ambassador Ligorria started to talk about: shared responsibility. Drug trafficking has exacerbated the levels of violence in our countries. And it is because we are victims of our geography. The drugs are produced in the south, (but) they are consumed mostly in the north, and they have to go through our countries. So the security situation is also an issue in which we have different but shared responsibilities, both the producing countries, the receiving countries and the countries that are in between. The consequences of immigration are not only the responsibility of the countries that produce it. These situations are complex. They are multi-faceted, and they need a reasonable and a comprehensive approach.
GR: The idea of shared responsibility is a tough argument to make in the United States when it comes to issues like this. Can you say a bit more about why it is so important that Americans see it in this way?
JL: You are the most important nation in the world, and we are your partners. When some problem appears, like the unaccompanied minors — the children — we have to share our responsibility, seeing the history, seeing the past.
GR: Should the United States be doing more to help foster economic growth in Central America?
FA: We all should be doing more. That is the concept of shared responsibilities. There is an interesting relation between security from another point of view. There are more than 2.2 million Salvadorans living here in the United States. Most of them are working here, and they are paying taxes here. They are contributing to the U.S. economy. And the part they contribute to our economy in El Salvador amounts to 17 percent of the GDP. What does this provide? Stability in the region. The stability of Central America is also a matter of importance to the United States, because it provides regional security. There is another element, which is solidarity. The U.S. is a country of immigrants. Throughout the history of immigration, there has been this aspect of solidarity, particularly when we are talking about children.
GR: What are the biggest myths Americans have about life in your country?
JL: Our people don’t want to leave our country; they only want to solve economic problems. And they know they have great opportunities here, where the Americans don’t want to go, for example agricultural. In Canada, we have a temporary program with workers from Guatemala. Every year, they come four or five months during the season, and then go back to Guatemala. When they come back to Guatemala, they come back with $10,000 or $12,000. With that kind of money, they can educate the children and contribute to society. I assure you, if we give temporary status to these 300,000 to 400,000 Guatemalans, they will go back to Guatemala to their families, and then come back to develop a decent and honorable job here in the United States. Not to get a job from the American citizens, but to do a job Americans do not want to do.
FA: People do not migrate because they want to; they migrate because they have to. For our countries, our most important responsibility is to create better life opportunities for our people, so that migration becomes an option but not a necessity. And this is the long-term solution to this problem. Right now, we are seeing something that is a proof of this in Mexico. During many years, Mexico was the country that produced more migration to the United States. Lately, because of the Mexican economy developing, and because of the slump in the U.S. economy, not only are Mexicans not coming any more, some are even going back. The long-term has to do with developing our countries.
GR: In the short-term, what change would you want to see made in U.S. immigration policy?
JL: We are in a position to collaborate strongly with United States authorities to solve the problem in the short-term. I think personally, and as an ambassador, too, we have to see more dynamics in the Congress of the United States — maybe after the elections is a good opportunity — to discuss a new vision about immigration. A hundred years ago, when the U.S. faced immigration flows between 1900 and 1910, 3.5 million immigrants from Italy arrived. Immigration issues are very important in the development of this fantastic nation. We are seeing the decreasing of the index immigration from Mexico. One reason: development. NAFTA has had a tremendous impact on the economy of Mexico. For that reason, Mexico created employees, created a better life for their citizens, and they don’t want to immigrate. It is the same with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Twelve years ago, the United States was the first investor in Guatemala. Today, it is No. 7. Do you know who the No. 1 investor in Guatemala is today? Russia.
FA: Immigration is a very delicate and sensitive issue, a domestic issue. As representatives of foreign governments and countries, we cannot say too much about it. It is totally left to the American people. But there are certain things that could be done to make the system more flexible. Other ones are these programs that already exist in the United States, like the temporary workers permit, similar to what Ambassador Ligorria was describing in Canada. There are studies that show that in the near future, the U.S. economy, for its growth and development, is going to need a lot of skilled and semi-skilled people. Again, not jobs that are going to be taken by American citizens. We can provide those jobs, and this would be a win-win situation, because people from our countries could come, work temporarily here as legal residents, with all their workers’ rights respected, and they would go back to El Salvador or to our countries with an added value: the experience and the knowledge and know-how that they have received here. I think issues like this are the ones that we hope to be considered sometime soon.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.