Joseph Wiltberger

Wiltberger is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has research interests in transnational migration, social movements, and development studies.  An abbreviated version of his prize-winning paper, “Beyond Remittances: Contesting El Salvador’s Developmentalist Migration Politics,” is featured below.

Roughly one quarter of Salvadorans live outside of El Salvador, and migrants’ remittances account for the country’s largest source of income. El Salvador is the top recipient of remittances as a share of GDP of all Latin American countries and ranks tenth highest in the world.  As emigration grew

Joseph Wiltberger

Joseph Wiltberger

throughout the postwar period following displacements from the country’s 1979-1992 civil war, the extraordinary economic impact of migrant remittances was quickly recognized and moved to the heart of the conservative government’s free market-oriented economic development strategies. The neoliberal state constructed a developmentalist migration politics that has entailed political, economic, and discursive strategies to encourage emigration and harness remittances, framing migrants as heroic and sacrificial actors key to El Salvador’s development, progress, and well-being.

Recently, conditions for marginalized and undocumented Salvadoran migrants have shifted, aggravated by tightened immigration enforcement and economic recession in the U.S. where the vast majority of Salvadoran migrants reside, and by new forms of violence targeting migrants en route through Mexico. In El Salvador itself, the deepening dependency on migration and remittances by Salvadoran families struggling to get by in a precarious economy wrought by neoliberal reforms has also raised new concerns about the viability of El Salvador’s future as a state that “expels migrants.” Out of growing discontent with these conditions, coupled with high expectations for El Salvador’s first ever FMLN-led government with the election of President Mauricio Funes in 2009, transnational networks of activists and organizations working with migrants and their communities began pressuring for a reformulation of the state’s migration politics that would go beyond a remittance-focused agenda to urgently address a broader set of concerns over the well-being of Salvadorans within and outside of national territory.

What were these activists responding to and what was at stake in their demands? To what extent and in what ways might the collective articulation of their claims reconfigure the discursive and political frameworks by which emigration has come to be understood and valued in El Salvador’s (trans)-national imaginary?

I examine the way El Salvador’s emigration, and the policies and discourses that engender it, have been contested recently through transnational activism on migration. My analysis draws from evidence from networked ethnographic fieldwork between 2008-2011 in sites in El Salvador, Mexico, and the U.S., during which I interviewed and attended the meetings, forums, presentations, and conventions of migrant community organizers, migrant rights activists, government officials, and development specialists.

I found that activists’ claims, in contesting El Salvador’s developmentalist-centered migration politics, produced a remarkable shift in the predominant discourse that has governed subjectivities on the meaning and value of migration for Salvadoran well-being. They were demanding a revaluation of human life, insisting that migrants could no longer be commodifiedas money transfers, as economic indicators, and as agents of development; ultimately, they were pushing the state to stop systematically “expelling” its people. This emergent shift and increasingly networked political struggle was produced out of a conjuncture marked by shifting migration conditions that migrant activists understood to be reaching a “crisis” situation, and by the new opening of political opportunity to engage with the state amid growing disillusionment with neoliberal state formations in El Salvador and elsewhere in the region.

Going “beyond remittances” was a phrase first employed by diaspora migrant activists to refer to the state’s failure to recognize what migrants considered to be other, non-monetary contributions to Salvadoran society. Claiming that migrants were only valued for the remittances they sent back, they approached the new government in El Salvador calling for citizenship rights and state resources to be extended to migrants abroad.

Reconceptualizing the role of El Salvador’s “transnational state” to move beyond remittance-motivated governance and to foster a stronger base of transnational outreach, in their view, was even more critical now that marginalized migrants faced new hardships in a stricter U.S. immigration climate.  More recent waves of Salvadoran migrants are generally denied any legal immigration status and subject to new local enforcement initiatives that streamline detention and deportations. The hardships for migrants produced out of this shifting terrain are reproduced in El Salvador, which now receives more than 20,000 deportees from the U.S. alone. Salvadoran legal and human rights advocates have drawn attention to the need for consistent standards and bi-lateral agreements on migrant detention and processing and have called upon the state to develop a comprehensive program to re-integrate deported migrants.

Of the most pressing concerns of migrant rights activists in El Salvador, and abroad, was what they now viewed as a catastrophic situation for undocumented Central American migrants traveling through Mexico. With kidnappings now affecting thousands of Central American migrants each year, migrant disappearances continuing to rise, and stories of several mass exhumations in northern Mexico, activists began framing the situation of migrants in transit as a “humanitarian crisis.” In so doing, they were calling for a revaluing of human life and for the state to go beyond an interest in ensuring safe passage as a strategy to help “regularize” flows of migrants (and remittances).

The emphasis that the human toll of emigration could no longer be ignored sparked a reassessment of El Salvador’s development strategies to mitigate emigration and curb dependency on remittances. The new sense of urgency gave force to a critical discourse that had been emerging among migrant community activists: that beyond pushing for channels for legal migration, El Salvador must forge a new political economic strategy focused on building “an option to not migrate.”

Just how this idea can play out in economic and social policies and programs (and what direction El Salvador’s next political turn will be) is open to debate, but the emerging shift in discourse on migration marks an important turn in the imagination of El Salvador’s transnational and territorial future, and it carries implications for the way we theorize social and political transformations and meanings produced out of transnational processes in the shifting regional context. Through political activism, renewed value was placed on localism and migrants’ lives over remittances, destabilizing the idea that emigration should be the favored path to Salvadoran well-being and development.

Ronda L Brulotte is the contributing editor for the Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology.

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