Aid can keep would-be immigrants at home


SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR -- This is about the other end of the immigration line, the other side of the story.

It's about the importance of solidarity between the haves of the developed world and the have-nots of the underdeveloped world. It's about making life better for the have-nots so they have an alternative to leaving their homelands and their families to look for work in strange countries. In this hemisphere, that's mainly the United States.

El Salvador is full of have-nots, including tens of thousands of farmers who can barely make ends meet in a country that was ravaged by civil war for 12 years in the 1980s and the early 1990s, and by devastating storms and earthquakes.

The small country of about 6.8 million people is relatively peaceful now, though it still has one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere. The former warring parties are political parties. The United States and other countries from Europe to Asia are spending a lot of money on development projects in El Salvador. But it seems not to be enough, soon enough.

An estimated 600 people a day undertake the dangerous and expensive attempt to travel from here to the United States. Between 1.5 million and 2.5 million Salvadorans are believed to be living in the U.S. today, many of them legally, many not. The remittances they send back to their families in El Salvador, totaling in the billions of dollars, are an estimated 16 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Say this for the hardened measures the United States has taken to prevent immigrants from crossing illegally into the country: For most Salvadorans, the trip is too dangerous, and, more important, too expensive. The middlemen who smuggle people across - known as coyotes - charge up to $6,000 for the trip, a fortune to many Salvadorans.

Still, reversing the trend is not easy. It takes lots of money, ingenuity and imagination, and it takes hard work.

But nothing is impossible.

In Candadillo, a small, poor, farming community in southeastern El Salvador, farmers helped with money and training from foreign governments and international aid agencies have turned from growing corn that brought them no income to growing green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelons. They can do that now because they have been helped with an irrigation system and taught how to use it.

Florinda Romero, 27, a mother of four, beams as she stands alongside dozens of other farmers beside a crop of peppers she is harvesting. Last year, the farmers grew corn and got nothing beyond barely enough to feed themselves. Recently, her husband, Mauricio Romero, said he harvested enough peppers to net more than $400 - not much, but 400 times what he made on his last corn crop.

"With this project," Mr. Romero said, "we could produce enough so we don't even think about going north. But we need more money to invest."

"We don't want a lot," said another of the farmers, Jose Romero. "Just enough to better the quality of life, so we can stay home - enough for food, clothes, money to send our kids to school. We don't want to leave our homes and families to go north."

This farming project is only one of a multitude of programs under way in El Salvador that are worth tens of millions of dollars and are intended to raise the quality life and create alternatives to immigration.

Some are vast, such as the multimillion-dollar revival of a port near the Pacific Ocean and the border with Honduras. Some are simple, such as teaching cattlemen how to improve their livestock and market their products. These programs are affecting the lives of a vast number of Salvadorans.

But the challenges seem almost overwhelming, and the lure of El Norte abides while there is talk of spending more than $20 billion on a huge border fence to keep out those who follow the lure. One can't help wondering: Why not spend that amount on development programs in the countries where the immigrants are coming from instead of on a fence? If that made life a lot better at home, many would not leave; many might return.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is

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