While America debates the pressures of immigration, particularly from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, there is little attention within this country about the impact of emigration within the borders of those countries. For some, it is a heartbreaking sight.
El Salvadoran Claudia Umana, a George W. Bush Institute Central American Prosperity Project participant and vice president for Fusades, a think tank dedicated to addressing economic and social issues in El Salvador, wrote an opinion piece for InsideSources in April.
“Not long ago, I watched a migrant caravan assembling around ‘El Salvador del Mundo,’ a public plaza in San Salvador with a statute of Christ evoking El Salvador’s formal name, ‘The Savior of the World in Central America’.” Umana wrote. “I saw the faces of men, women and children who made the difficult decision to leave their families and start a long and dangerous journey in search of hope and opportunity. They were optimistic for their future, but we need that optimism to stay in Central America.”
El Salvador is still dangerous, Umana says, despite a murder rate that continues to drop. There is also a young population that can’t find work, who become prime targets for gang recruitment.
“It doesn’t help that our justice system is in crisis,” she said. “Sadly, an astounding 95 percent of violent crimes in El Salvador go unpunished due to weak prosecutorial capacity, lack of scientific evidence and corruption in the courts,” Umana said. “Our chain of justice is broken; we need data and guidance to fix it. If we can’t repair the system we are rewarding bad behavior.”
Enrique Melendez, a Fountain Hills resident, former town councilman and currently honorary consul for El Salvador, has long been an advocate for his home country.
When it comes to immigration Melendez has made his thoughts known and it has opened him to criticism. To be clear, he has dual citizenship in the U.S. and El Salvador, but he believes the U.S. has the right and duty to protect its sovereignty. He is not an advocate for a wall, but has no problem with sending many back to their own country.
He believes the U.S. can help solve the immigration crisis by directing some of its efforts toward helping other countries, such as El Salvador, with the “emigration” issues described by Umana.
Melendez is optimistic that with the election of a new president who took office June 1, decades of government corruption in the region can be left behind. Melendez describes President Nayib Bukele, the young former mayor of San Salvador, as a moderate who avoids the extremes of ideology.
Melendez said Bukele is a good man who he believes can change relationships with the United States.
There are key reasons people want to leave for the U.S., according to Melendez. These are as basic as seeking a better life and escaping gang violence; he added that MS-13 now has tens of thousands of members worldwide. Melendez said another reason that is not discussed much is that many leave to be reunited with family members. He said there were 150,000 Salvadorans who received asylum during the Reagan administration while El Salvador was torn by revolution. Melendez said many of those people are still in this country and family members come to reunite with them on American soil.
In spite of his optimism, Melendez does not believe the migration to the U.S. will stop, but he thinks the United States can contribute to solving the problem without building a border wall.
He says for half the cost of a wall, the U.S. can distribute funds to the Central American countries that need to improve their economic outlook.
Melendez said he is well aware of concerns over corruption and how foreign aid might be used. However, he suggests, and he said many foreign service professionals agree, if the funds are funneled through the American Embassy projects can be managed and controlled by the U.S.
Ataco, a small city in the mountains a few hours outside of San Salvador, has been a Sister City of Fountain Hills since 2007.
Melendez said that while crime and violence in Ataco are near non-existent, the community is suffering economic devastation because, for so many years, it has been reliant on its coffee plantations that supply quality mountain-grown coffee around the world. However, drought has devastated the crop and competition from areas such as Southeast Asia has squeezed the economic vitality from the town. Countries such as Vietnam have converted rice patties to coffee plantations and sell much cheaper than the El Salvador crop.
The Sister City relationship between Fountain Hills and Ataco has been a strong one from the beginning and the town has been there to help and support its various needs. The leadership of Ataco, Mayor Oscar Gomez, has been focused on improving conditions for his residents and he has been instrumental in working with Fountain Hills for the benefit of all.
A number of Fountain Hills residents made an exchange visit to Ataco early in the Sister Cities relationship. They helped construct 20 new houses now named Fountain Hills Village. Over the years, additional visits have focused on health, education and hurricane relief.
During a visit here to Fountain Hills earlier this spring, Gomez was presented with $5,000 to take home, which will be put toward a new school, also to be named for Fountain Hills. The plan for this school is to provide for K-12 education during daytime hours and vocational education for adults looking to transition to a new career in trades. This effort is a big step toward self-sufficiency for Ataco’s population. Construction on the school facility is anticipated by the end of this year.
With Fountain Hills as a Sister City it was no surprise that some of the visitors took note of the potential for artisans to create a tourist mecca at Ataco. A hotel has been built and visitors are welcome at Ataco.
Town Councilman Mike Scharnow and his wife, Brenda, hosted students who came from Ataco early in the Sister Cities connection. He has also visited the town working with Habitat for Humanity in association with his employer, Thrivent Financial.
Scharnow, also a local Sister Cities board member, said he has known Oscar Gomez now for a number of years and has confidence in his leadership as mayor. Scharnow is coordinating with the mayor in planning a trip to Ataco late this year.
Working with Thrivent Scharnow said they are able to pull together some financial help, clothing and donations of other needs and food packages.
“If we can help folks in the Ataco area, it is a small drop in a big pond, but hopefully it might stay the urge for some to join a caravan,” Scharnow said.
Carol Carroll leads the Sister Cities Advisory Commission for the Fountain Hills Town Council and has for many years been involved in global exchange programs such as the American Field Service. She said Sister Cities International quite simply allows people to get to know one another.
“It’s like having thousands of diplomats,” Carroll said.
Sister Cities International has 5,000 member communities and 2,000 partnerships in 140 countries.
Carroll said the connections allow students to become involved globally.
“If students around the world are more involved they develop a wider world view,” Carroll said. “That can make more difference in just one town at a time.”
Sister Cities International was the idea of President Dwight D. Eisenhower who though his experiences in World War II looked for better ways toward world peace. His stated mission for Sister Cities is, “To promote peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation – one individual, one community at a time.”