Salvadoran immigrants

One of the smallest Central American nations, El Salvador has supplied a disproportionate number of immigrants to the United States. By the early twenty-first century, roughly 20 percent of all Salvadorans were living in the United States, where they constituted the largest Central American immigrant community and the fourth-largest Latin American group, behind Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans.

Salvadorans have immigrated to the United States since the late nineteenth century, but substantial Salvadoran immigration did not begin until after a Civil war, Salvadoranbloody civil war exploded in the tiny Central American nation in 1979. Since then, deteriorating economic conditions andNatural disasters;in El Salvador[El Salvador]natural disasters have pushed more than one million Salvadorans to seek better lives in the United States. Most have come as undocumented workers.Salvadoran immigrantsSalvadoran immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Salvadoran immigrants[cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;Salvadoran immigrants

Pre-Civil War Immigrants

The first wave of Salvadoran migration can be traced to the late nineteenth century, when California;Salvadoran immigrantsSan Francisco;Salvadoran immigrantsSan Francisco-based companies established business contracts with Salvadoran and other Central American coffee growers. The migration networks then established were initially limited to the elite but were later extended to Salvadorans who were recruited to work in California coffee factories and other industries. During the 1930’s, a combination of harsh economic conditions and political instability drove many Salvadorans to leave their homeland. The military regime of Hernández, MaximilianoMaximiliano Hernández forced into exile middle- and upper-class Salvadorans, who resettled mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York City, where they found employment in the cities’ industrial sectors.

Another important immigration wave took place during the 1940’s, as World War II created a significant demand for labor. Some Salvadorans went to work in the Panama Canal;Salvadoran workersPanama Canal Zone, and many others got contracts to work in Southern California. After passage of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened immigration to many countries that had not been historically included, some 100,000 Central Americans, many of them Salvadorans, immigrated to the United States. They settled not only in California, but also in Texas, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

Post-1979 Immigration

The migration of Salvadorans to the United States between 1979 and the late 1990’s was prompted mainly by political instability resulting from the civil war that ravaged the country from 1979 to 1992. During this period, the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front escalated its armed insurgency against the conservative oligarchy and military government ruling El Salvador. During the conflict, military and right-wing paramilitary death squads targeted labor leaders, intellectuals, religious leaders who were deemed subversive because of their adhesion to Liberation Theology, and other sympathizers with the uprising. By the time peace accords were signed in 1992, some 75,000 Salvadorans had died.

Throughout the civil war, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the country. Some left because of persecution and death threats from both the government and leftist guerrillas, while many rural laborers whose livelihood was disrupted by the conflict emigrated in search of economic opportunities. The war’s impact on immigration to the United States was significant. Between the early 1980’s and 1990, the number of Salvadorans residing in the country rose from 213,000 to 565,000. Immigrant settlement patterns followed those of earlier migration waves, withLos Angeles;Salvadoran immigrantsLos Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York continuing to be the top destinations. However, Salvadorans also settled in other cities with substantial Hispanic populations, such as Miami and Boston. In Los Angeles, Salvadorans soon became the second-largest immigrant community.

The immigration of Salvadoran refugees into the United States during the civil war was mired in political controversy. The Salvadorans were not given the same refugee status that refugees from many other nations had enjoyed, so most entered the country illegally and experienced a long, painful journeys toward legal residency. During the 1980’s, fewer than 3 percent of Salvadoran applicants were granted refugee status. In 1985, religious and refugee-service organizations sued the U.S. government for discrimination against Salvadoran and Guatemalan Asylum, political;Central American immigrantsasylum seekers. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1990 created a Temporary protected status;Central American immigrantstemporary protected status (TPS) and designated Salvadorans as its first recipients. Salvadorans were later allowed to register for “deferred enforced departure” between 1992 an 1996, but even those provisions left many Salvadorans in legal limbo.

Salvadoran immigration to the United States did not stop with the settlement of El Salvador’s civil war. A devastated economy, poverty, and insecurity propelled even more Salvadorans to seek jobs or family reunification in the United States. Earthquakes in 2001 left 1.5 million Salvadorans without homes, further disrupting economic recovery and fueling emigration. This time, however, immigrants who reached the United States settled in states that had not traditionally received many Hispanic immigrants in search of agricultural and construction jobs, such as North Carolina;Salvadoran immigrantsNorth Carolina and Arkansas;Salvadoran immigrantsArkansas. A revised 2000 U.S. Census study put the number of Salvadorans in the United States at 1,010,740. However, estimates made by the Salvadoran embassy in Washington, D.C., placed that figure at about 1.7 million.

Salvadorans have contributed to the U.S. economy by engaging in both high- and low-skilled occupations. Their Remittances of earnings;Latin Americansremittances ($3.7 billion in 2007) have become vital to El Salvador, representing 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.Salvadoran immigrants

Further Reading

  • Cordova, Carlos. The Salvadoran Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Overview of El Salvador, Salvadoran immigration, and various aspects of the Salvadoran community in the United States.
  • Coutin, Susan Bibler. Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants’ Struggles for U.S. Residency. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Analysis of the fight by Salvadorans to normalize their residency situation in the United States.
  • Hamilton, Nora, and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla. Seeking Community in a Global City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Study of the struggle for survival and efforts to build their own communities by Salvadorans and Guatemalans.
  • Kowalski, Kathiann. Salvadorans in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2006. Concise history of the nation of El Salvador, its civil war, and Salvadoran experiences in the United States.
  • Mahler, Sarah. Salvadorans in Suburbia: Symbiosis and Conflict. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 1995. Study of the settlement patterns and interaction of Salvadoran immigrants in the Long Island suburb of New York City.

Illegal immigration

Latin American immigrants

Latinos and immigrants

Los Angeles

Natural disasters as push-pull factors


Washington, D.C.