In early January United States Federal authorities announced that they were revoking Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadoran natives who currently live, work, and raise their families in the U.S. The status was originally granted by the George W. Bush administration after two devastating earthquakes hit El Salvador in early 2001 and has been extended repeatedly by both the Bush and Obama administrations. While much of the infrastructure that was damaged by the earthquakes has been rebuilt and repaired, for many the country remains a very dangerous and inhospitable place in which to live.
In the years since receiving TPS Salvadorans in our country have worked hard to be productive residents. According to analysis by the Center for Migration Studies, 88 percent of Salvadoran beneficiaries of TPS participate in the labor force. They are parents to 192,700 American-born children who now face separation either from the parents they love or from the only friends, culture, and country they have ever known. And they send several billion dollars annually to family members still in El Salvador. Ending this support will significantly increase the suffering of those who depend on it to supplement their meager living.
Apart from the natural disasters of earthquake and drought, there is a direct line of cause and effect between U.S. policies of the past fifty years and the violence and corruption still prevalent in El Salvador today. During the 1980s, under the guise of “fighting communism,” the Reagan administration supported the brutal military regime which then ruled El Salvador. Military aid in the amount of $1 million per day flowed to the army. Much of it ended up equipping the death squads and lining the pockets of corrupt generals.
Beginning in 1946 the U.S. has maintained a military training school, first in Panama and later at Fort Benning, Georgia, where Latin American soldiers are instructed in techniques of warfare. Formally named The School of the Americas, and often referred to by peace activists as The School of Assassins, the SOA has produced many of the vicious offenders against human rights who have held power in various Latin American countries. SOA graduates headed the death squads during El Salvador’s civil war and ordered or committed many of the high-profile assassinations, including Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980, the El Mozote massacre in December 1981, and the murders of six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the University of Central America in November 1989.
Note that in 2001 Congress, under great pressure from human rights activists to close the SOA, instead renamed it the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and authorized minimal structural changes. Critics derided these changes as meaningless in terms of correcting the abuses. In a subsequent interview the late Paul Coverdell, at the time a Georgia Senator and SOA supporter, agreed with this assessment, characterizing the new name and proposed restructuring as "cosmetic" changes that would ensure that the SOA could continue its mission and operation.
In 1986 Salvadoran Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez wrote a letter to the bishops of the ELCA in the United States, stating that his people were “walking the way of the cross” and asking for international witnesses to come and walk with them. Project Via Crucis (PVC), an ecumenical ministry in South-central Pennsylvania working in solidarity with the people and churches of El Salvador, was begun in response to that letter. Ours was a “ministry of accompaniment” – being with the people, hearing their stories, then returning to our churches and communities to advocate for an end to the violence and a just peace for the war-torn country.
PVC committed to sending one delegation per year, with each trip lasting ten to twelve days. What follows are brief excerpts from my journal from the October 1990 delegation. With the civil war still raging, there was a real danger that any written items could be seized at a military checkpoint. Thus we were warned, for their protection, to disguise the names of persons and villages that we visited. In these excerpts the speakers are Father T, a diocesan priest working with Base Christian Communities; J, a parish worker; and BD, a North American working long term in the country.
“Father T opens by telling us that several days ago he had gone with [Lutheran] Bishop Medardo Gomez to give an address at a church. There the people told him that recently soldiers had invaded the church, forced people to lie on the floor, demanded to know where the guns were hidden, and then robbed them. He sees the role of the church as trying to institute a project of peace while living in a situation of war.
“The churches are one target of the oppression; they do not escape. There has been an ongoing campaign directed against the church, especially evident in the newspaper, which calls the bishop and auxiliary bishop ‘Red bishops.’
“Since the signing of the accords in July [preliminary accords that had been signed as part of on-going peace negotiations] there has been a series of violations of human rights. In one parish in Soyapango, ten days ago, the air force raided a house, captured a church member, and interrogated him all night long about activities of the church, names of members, etc.
“In San Roque we opened a Parish Center for malnourished children. The armed forces took half of the food and accused the priest of delivering arms to the guerrillas. The same priest, an Italian, had been captured in May 1990.
“Over the past ten years 103 [teachers] have been disappeared and more than 400 have been murdered. Ten were jailed in the latest conflict. As an example, Maria Cristina Gomez was captured about 11 a.m. one morning right in front of the children whom she taught and other [teachers]. She was captured by men in civilian clothes and taken away in a van with polarized windows. Two hours later her tortured body was found with acid burns all over it. This happened in March of 1989. She was a Baptist worker.
“We can't have democracy as long as the Army makes political decisions and holds sway over civilian life. In this country no one who promotes a better life with human rights is guaranteed of being alive tomorrow.
“The very worst thing is that the armed forces have the backing and support of the US Government. After everything that has happened, still all we see is a proposed cut or retention of aid.”
This is the brutal history which still shapes El Salvador today. The country is beautiful. The people are hardworking and deeply caring, both the ones who have fled to other countries in recent decades and the ones who remain. The massive upheaval and dislocation that will be caused by withdrawal of TPS is unnecessary and unjust. Our scriptures and our Christ call us to love our neighbors, standing with the poor and the oppressed against their persecutors. We need to find ways to answer that call and do it now.