San Salvador, El Salvador
Dita wakes up at 5 o’clock every morning. By six she’s pulled back her hair into a ponytail and set out on the two-hour bus ride from her home in La Libertad, El Salvador to the capital San Salvador, where she begins English class at 8 am. Afterward, she runs to her computer-programming class, where she is proudly the only woman in attendance. Both of these opportunities exist thanks to funding from the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID.
A year ago, Dita had been deported from the US-Mexico border twice and inside Mexico once. She had been repeatedly fleeing death threats from the gangs in her neighborhood. (Her name has been changed to protect her safety.) Her migration attempts had failed, and she was frustrated. On top of everything else, her father had just been assaulted and robbed of his only source of income—his motorcycle—for accidentally crossing one of the invisible lines between gang territories. Dita wished she could study or find a job. She spoke only of migrating again. But one day, her cell phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line explained to Dita that when she had arrived back in El Salvador—after her last deportation—she had checked off a box saying she was looking for work, so the government had shared her contact information. They were offering her a place in a support group for women returning after a deportation—an opportunity provided by Glasswing International, a nonprofit working to stem the root causes of migration and which receives funding through a mix of private donations and foreign aid.
In the run-up to the midterm election, President Donald Trump doubled down on his promise to end US government aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in response to the migrant caravan that was slowly making its way through Mexico. He tweeted that “Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were not able to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the U.S. We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them.”
Mark Feierstein, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Americas Program, said that he doubts the president could follow through with his threat and that many on the Hill agree with Dita: “All the agencies that have cooperation programs in Central America recognize that these programs are in the US national interest. And that the only way we’re going to stop migrants from coming is by investing in these countries and improving their governments.”
But while Congress has the power of the purse, presidents have held aid payments to countries in the past. If there are specific conditions attached to aid, the administration has more leeway, like when the Trump administration held back foreign military-aid to Pakistan earlier this year. The new FY2019 foreign-assistance budget is still being negotiated as well, and Trump has proposed a nearly 25 percent cut to the State Department and USAID spending.
One thing is clear: Reducing foreign aid would eliminate many of the programs that keep people—and women like Dita—from migrating. Women now comprise 27 percent of all migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics, up from 14 percent in 2011. In November, Trump also announced that many migrants were coming to the United States purely because of socioeconomic reasons. “I can’t blame them for that,” he said during an election-eve statement. And it’s true, the economic reality can be stark: Nearly 40 percent of El Salvador suffers from under-employment (people making less than the minimum wage of roughly $300 dollars a month), and a 2017 World Economic Forum study concluded that El Salvador has the largest gender pay gap in all of Central America.
Elizabeth Kennedy, a prominent researcher and past Fulbright grantee who has done extensive work with deportees in both El Salvador and Honduras, explains that things are not so clear cut in the Northern Triangle countries like El Salvador. “There are a handful of upper-class neighborhoods where there’s no gang presence in El Salvador, but the vast majority of Salvadorans can’t live in them, which means that they are returning to gang-controlled neighborhoods,” she said. “Violence and poverty don’t have to go hand in hand, but in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala they do.”
Between January and May of 2018, a woman was murdered on average every 19 hours in El Salvador. And Guatemala and Honduras aren’t far behind, according to a 2016 Small Arms Survey report. In all three countries, perpetrators of crimes against women are largely afforded impunity. According to the Observatory of Violence Against Women, only 3 percent of court cases involving violence against women in El Salvador ended in guilty verdicts between 2016 and 2017.
Celina de Sola, the co-founder of Glasswing International, told me, “Women are disproportionately affected by poverty and violence. So when you…reduce funding for programs which are the only opportunity that people have to navigate and survive in a context and thrive, it’s going to be even worse if you’re a girl.”
Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute and an expert on Central American migration, says that in his experience, women don’t just leave for better job options. “It usually is a higher bar…that usually speaks to not just a better opportunity, but getting away from something that is terrifying.” That’s why, according to Selee, women and their children usually leave after what he calls a “detonating event.”
For Dita, the detonating event was nearly literal; gangs threatened to throw a bomb into her cafe for failing to pay extortion fees. So, last year, Dita traveled the nearly 2,000 miles to the US-Mexico border, twice.
Both times the US immigration officials decided Dita’s fear wasn’t credible and deported her. So she tried again, but this time she was arrested in Mexico. And now, despite being too afraid of to walk to and from the bus station alone in her neighborhood, she goes to classes in San Salvador, and she waits for two to three hours after dark at the bus station until her family can walk with her back home. De Sola hopes programs like hers can harness the resilience of women like Dita for the betterment of El Salvador.
In October 2017, Dita began with Glasswing’s group for young women returnees—the word “deportee” holds stigma in El Salvador. There, she received three months of psychological and social support and an eventual referral to USAID’s Bridges to Employment program, which funds her current studies. De Sola says that the Glasswing program for returnees has now been able to serve 43 women, Dita included, and connect the returnees with services like USAID’s Bridges To Employment that would fit their goals. Glasswing International runs a number of programs all over the Northern Triangle from its headquarters in El Salvador, including what it calls Girls Clubs, where it partners with local government and health clinics to reach young women in their own communities and combat the factors that push women to leave. There, girls map out safe spaces and times within their community, and discuss how to navigate them together. This, De Sola said, not only creates community bonds, but produces more of a sense of control for the girls over their environment. Graduates often return to lead their old clubs.
Only time will tell whether these programs are working, Feierstein said. In a 2014 study of USAID’s effectiveness, the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University showed that in the areas where USAID was operating programs like Dita’s Bridges to Employment, “communities improved more (or declined less) than they would have if USAID’s programs had not been administered.”
According to Feierstein, the results of these programs are not going to be evident overnight. “The roots go back centuries,” he said of the violence that wracks the region. “They are severely unequal countries in many cases led by corrupt governments. So I think the expectation with regard to the development programs is that over the medium term, long term we’ll see decreases in crime, we’ll see decreases in poverty, increases economic growth, and greater opportunities for women. But we shouldn’t expect it to happen in a matter of months.”
Cindy Huang, co-director of the Center for Global Development’s program on migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy, stressed that the United States should be increasing aid to the region and that rigorous multiyear evaluations have shown that US funding can reduce violence. “Importantly,” she said, the aid programs that were successful “went beyond just security enforcement and included tools tailored to the different communities such as vocational skills building, at-risk youth education, employment-generation efforts, and community-based policing.”
Dita’s experience hasn’t been perfect; she still hasn’t been able to start the internship she expected or land a job. “When I went looking for work in programming, the person that interviewed me began asking me whether I could make coffee or cook,” said Dita, who holds a degree as a systems technician and has completed part of a college degree in graphic design. “Nothing to do with programming. They weren’t questions I would ever have asked him.”
During a moment of doubt she had expressed switching to an English class—maybe she could find a job in a call center, she thought. But when Dita told her programming professor that she was leaving, he balked. “He said, ‘You can’t stop, you’re a success story!’” remembered Dita.
That small comment left a big mark, and Dita stayed in the course. Now, she dreams of designing web pages and cell-phone games, like the ones she created in class. “Kind of like Angry Birds,” she said, “using Unity 3D,” a game engine used by amateur coders and professionals alike. She now takes English on top of other studies. Dita also takes pride in the fact that men in her class will approach her for help. She still talks about the need for a job. Dita worries that if she doesn’t get experience through her program, no one will hire her outside it. Because of this, she hasn’t completely given up the idea of migrating again if she can’t find employment soon. But she also said that the program has given her a hope that didn’t exist before: the idea that she could survive and thrive in her own country. So when she first heard of Trump’s promise to cut aid, she saw her own story as an example of why that approach was irrational.
“The less support there is in the country, the more people will want to leave,” Dita said. “It’s a vicious cycle that won’t ever end.”