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El Salvador: Despite End to Civil War, Emigration Continues

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El Salvador: Despite End to Civil War, Emigration Continues

El Salvador is the smallest, most densely populated country in Central America. It is estimated that more than 25 percent of its population migrated or fled during the country's civil war, which began in 1979 and ended in 1992. Approximately 1.5 million Salvadorans now live and work in the United States; 39,000 are in Canada according to Statistics Canada, with about 20,000 in Australia and another 12,000 in Italy according to the Salvadoran Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Increasingly, people are replacing coffee, cotton, and sugar as El Salvador's most important export. Remittances are now a critical source of national income, making up over half of all export earnings and more than 17 percent of GDP. Although the government is more focused on engaging its diaspora, it is also dealing with immigrants from neighboring countries and issues around human trafficking.

Historical Background

In 1525, the Spanish colonized the area that includes modern-day El Salvador. The Spanish crown granted land concessions to nobles and gentry seeking territory for cultivation. The booming plantation system, which centered on indigo, sugar, and livestock, encouraged migration within the region to sustain these activities. By the late-1700s, the population was largely concentrated in three zones: (1) around the haciendas below the northern cordillera (mountain range), (2) in the central lowlands, and (3) along the coastal plains.

Under colonial rule, indigenous peoples retained a right to hold communal lands once those lands that had been designated for export production had been appropriated by the colonists. Indigenous communities were assigned to ejidos, communally held land that was often worked collectively. These communities had the right to retain land in common ownership or rent it to tenants outside the community. Typically, the land was given over to the cultivation of corn and beans and the extraction of balsam wood.

The disintegration of the ejido model began in the late-19th century and culminated with the granting of de facto private ownership rights to parcels of ejido land to any community member willing to cultivate cocoa, coffee, rubber, and agave (a fibrous cactus used for making rope). The soaring price of coffee made it a valuable export crop, and since, the mid-19th century, much of the humid subtropical forest has given way to coffee plantations, which now cover approximately 10 percent of El Salvador's territory.

Population growth in departments such as Santa Ana, Sonsonate, and Ahuachapán responded to the expansion of coffee production, attracting internal migrants from the northern highlands. Peasants who had lost or been displaced from communal lands were quickly integrated into the plantation system in the north, and, at the same time, the rise in sugar cane production increasingly drew internal migrants from the entire country to the coastal plains around the Lempa River.

Civil War and Mass Emigration to the United States

Only a small number of Salvadorans migrated to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Salvadoran population living in the United States numbered in the low thousands. This population was markedly polarized, consisting of a privileged few from the wealthy, landholding classes, who came to study and work abroad, and a number of domestic servants, gardeners, and laborers, whom the diplomatic corps brought over primarily for domestic service.

The population of Salvadorans in the United States increased dramatically during the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to the repression and violence associated with the onset of civil war. Vastly unequal land holdings and a growing surplus labor force prompted a struggle for land rights and resources that quickly spread throughout the country.

The trickle of migrants northwards and to neighboring countries soon became a torrent as families fled the conflict, most of them traveling overland through Mexico. The majority were from rural communities. Migration peaked in 1982, with an estimated 129,000 individuals recorded leaving the country.

While some fled across the Honduran, Nicaraguan, and Guatemalan borders, others remained in El Salvador (internally displaced people, or IDPs) and sought refuge in those departments and municipalities that were not directly involved in the conflict. The department of Chalatenango alone had 15,000 IDPs in 1982.

Many Salvadorans who fled the armed conflict received international aid in refugee camps and were eventually repatriated under the auspices of the United Nations. Others received aid in reception camps within El Salvador. Those entering the United States often resided first in camps in neighboring countries.

Data from the U.S. Public Use Micro Sample (PUMS), a 1 percent subsample of the U.S. census data from 2000, confirm that the numbers of Salvadorans reporting that they entered the country during the 1970s and 1980s increased substantially from previous levels. Approximately 45,000 Salvadorans reported entering the United States between 1970 and 1974 while 334,000 reported entering between 1985 and 1990.

The Salvadorans who entered the United States generally had little formal education. Between 1980 and 1990, according to 2000 U.S. census PUMS data, the percentage of Salvadorans reporting that they had only completed primary school rose from 37 percent in 1980 to 42 percent in 1990. Over the same period, the percentage of Salvadorans reporting that they had post-secondary education declined from 13 percent to 9 percent.

Although many Salvadorans applied for asylum in the 1980s, approximately 2 percent of applications were approved while the majority found their applications were considered "frivolous." As a result, many Salvadorans remained in the United States without documents. The legalization provisions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 gave 146,000 Salvadorans legal status.

In 1991, a group of religious organizations and refugee advocacy organizations won its class-action lawsuit against the federal government for its discriminatory treatment of asylum claims from Salvadorans and Guatemalans. The American Baptist Churches v Thornburgh (ABC) decision compelled the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS, now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to offer de novo (initial) asylum hearings under new and fairer regulations to all Salvadorans and Guatemalans whose previous applications were denied in the 1980s.

Under the ABC agreement, INS set up a specially trained corps of asylum adjudicators. The approval rates for Salvadoran asylum applicants rose to over 25 percent within a year. By 1993, according to anthropologist Sarah Mahler, over 250,000 applications for asylum were pending.

War-Time Migration to Other Countries

Many Salvadorans sought refuge from the civil war in neighboring countries. In 1985, the El Salvador Committee for Human Rights estimated that 120,000 Salvadorans were living in Mexico, 70,000 in Guatemala, 20,000 in Honduras, 17,500 in Nicaragua, and 10,000 in Costa Rica.

Salvadorans fleeing to Mexico were met by a government unwilling to offer them much help. While not as restrictive as Honduras, Mexico, at the time, was not a signatory of the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, and left most of the burden of helping refugees to nongovernmental organizations. Furthermore, the few government-run camps offered minimal services, and refugees in the cities were left to fend for themselves.

Salvadoran refugees' lack of legal standing and protection in Mexico discouraged Salvadorans from remaining. While official foreign policy tacitly accepted refugees, there were many instances of mass deportations, since Mexican immigration law did not recognize "refugee" as a legal status.

In Honduras, the majority of Salvadoran exiles were confined to refugee camps in Colomoncagua and Mesa Grande, where they received limited assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Despite support from UNHCR, the refugees were not permitted to leave the camp to work or make purchases. The Honduran authorities militarized the camps and patrolled the surrounding areas.

Because it was difficult to gain asylum in the United States, a number of Salvadorans refugees and exiles continued northward to Canada. Canada increased its refugee quota for Latin America from 2,000 in 1981 to 25,000 by 1984; two-thirds of these visas went to Central Americans — primarily those from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

As the exodus from Central America rose in response to scorched earth policies and widespread repression, Canada passed a moratorium on deportations for Salvadorans and Guatemalans. In the late 1980s, Canada overhauled its asylum system, resulting in a 77 percent approval rate for Salvadoran refugees. All those approved received comprehensive assistance services including relocation assistance, health care, and education opportunities.

A number of Salvadorans were also able to apply for refugee status and get passage to countries in Europe and Australia. Over the decade of the 1980s, almost 3,000 Salvadorans gained refugee status in Australia, and similar numbers were granted refugee status in Italy and Sweden.

Migration to the United States since 1990

Although migration rates have declined since the end of the civil war, official figures estimate that 4.7 people per 1,000, or upwards of 25,000 people, continue to emigrate each year according to 2002 data from the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. Networks that were developed during the civil war to aid individuals fleeing from conflict now serve the needs of economic migrants searching for opportunities in the north.

As the ABC ruling was being made, another avenue for legal status also became available. Established in the Immigration Act of 1990, temporary protected status (TPS) grants residence and work permission to all eligible nationals from a designated country for a period of between six and 18 months. Although TPS may be extended depending on the specifics of the individual case, it does not confer permanent residency rights.

In 1990, Salvadorans were among the first group declared eligible for TPS. Although TPS ended in 1992, Salvadorans were allowed to stay under deferred-enforced-departure (DED), a status that maintained temporary residence and work privileges. Once DED status ended, in 1996, Salvadorans were able to apply for political asylum.

Salvadorans again were eligible for TPS after the country's 2001 earthquake, and their TPS has been renewed multiple times, most recently in 2006; TPS is presently set to expire on March 9, 2009. According to the Embassy of El Salvador in the United States, 234,000 Salvadorans reregistered for TPS in 2006.

Finally, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), signed into law on November 19, 1997, provided special rules regarding applications by certain Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and some former Soviet-bloc nationals for suspension of deportation and cancellation of removal. In all, 129,131 Salvadorans were able to stay in the United States because of NACARA according to the Embassy of El Salvador in the United States.

Despite these measures, the number of unauthorized Salvadorans residing in the United States continues to rise. In 1996, INS estimated that there were 335,000 unauthorized Salvadorans residing in the United States.

The number of unauthorized Salvadorans living in the United States is not readily available or easily verified. However, there may be as many as 400,000 unauthorized Salvadorans currently residing in the United States based on estimates from U.S. government data. Typically, they are from rural households, and they find employment in the low-wage service sector and in construction.

According to data from the 2000 census, the foreign born from El Salvador have the lowest high school graduation rate (34.8 percent) among Central Americans, and are the least like among Central Americans age 25 and older to hold a bachelor's degree (4.9 percent).

Migration to El Salvador

Although the net migration flow is outward to other countries, there is evidence that some Central American residents are relocating to El Salvador in search of jobs. Hondurans and Nicaraguans, among the most visible immigrants in El Salvador, generally come seeking employment opportunities and higher wages. Many of these opportunities are concentrated in high out-migration areas in the eastern part of the country.

Economists Dilip Ratha and William Shaw estimated in 2007 that there were 1,913 Nicaraguans and 7,751 Honduras living in El Salvador in 2005. However, these figures may significantly underestimate the numbers of Hondurans and Nicaraguans working temporarily in El Salvador.

El Salvador's General Directorate of Migration (Dirección General de Migración) grants temporary work visas for harvesting crops such as sugar cane. Yet, the majority of those who work temporarily in El Salvador do so without permits, crossing the country's porous borders.


The U.S. State Department's 2007 annual report on human trafficking classified El Salvador as a source, transit, and destination country in the trafficking of women and children. Salvadorans are trafficked to Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States.

Within El Salvador, Salvadoran women and girls are trafficked from rural to urban areas; women and children from Honduras and Nicaragua are trafficked to El Salvador to be exploited as sex workers. Most trafficking is done for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but there is some evidence of trafficking for forced labor.

The State Department report states that the Salvadoran government prosecuted 67 individuals for trafficking in 2006, a nearly four-fold increase from the number prosecuted during the previous year. However, prosecutors obtained just four convictions, with sentences ranging from three to eight years' imprisonment.

The government of El Salvador also takes steps in protecting the victims of trafficking. In 2006, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the government opened the region's first shelter for trafficking victims. The government financially assists and offers police protection to the shelter. In addition, IOM and the government launched an information campaign in 2006 against trafficking and smuggling in the country.

Salvadoran law enforcement officials do not jail victims for crimes committed as a result of their being trafficked, and victims are encouraged to participate in the investigation of their traffickers. Foreigners who are trafficking victims do not face deportation but rather are encouraged to voluntarily repatriate to their home countries with the assistance of the Salvadoran government. Victims who would face persecution or retribution in their home countries have no legal options to stay in El Salvador.

Peace, Remittances, and Economic Recovery

The signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in January 1992 marked the end of a grueling civil war, during which much of El Salvador's infrastructure was destroyed, 75,000 lives were lost, and over a million individuals were displaced. Almost 15 years later, the prospects for continued peace appear solid. Yet, the political and economic constraints that the country faces are significant.

The budget deficit, which stood at a little over 2 percent of GDP in 1992, has risen to almost 4 percent of GDP and continues to be financed principally by foreign aid and borrowing. Moreover, the reconstruction costs incurred to rebuild public infrastructure have led to a significant accumulation of debt. Gross domestic savings rates are low, currently at about 13 percent of GDP, and investment is largely supplemented by net capital inflows from abroad. When disaggregated, it is clear that remittances dominate those capital inflows.

Not surprisingly, remittances have increased throughout the course of the 1980s and 1990s, and continue to rise (see Figure 1). El Salvador captures the second-largest volume of remittances in the hemisphere after Mexico. In 2005, El Salvador recorded the receipt of over US$2.8 billion in remittances. In 2006, remittances accounted for a little under 17 percent of GDP. Approximately 22 percent of all households reported receiving remittances in El Salvador in 2004 according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).


Figure 1. Current Value of Remittances Entering El Salvador in Millions of U.S. Dollars
Source: Banco Central de Reserva El Salvador, Informe Trimestral, December 1980 to 2005.

Migration is the safety valve that has underpinned the post-war economic recovery in El Salvador, reducing poverty rates, facilitating the rapid expansion of the financial sector, and compensating for declining export prices and volumes. Successful migrants who obtain jobs abroad send back remittances, contribute to raising incomes, and lift households out of poverty, disproportionately injecting cash into poor and rural communities.

In his recent volume on the Salvadoran transition from war to peace, Salvadoran economist Alexander Segovia observes, "One of the principle factors that explain the reduction in poverty in El Salvador in the decade of the 90s is the influx of remittances, which for the most part accrue to poor households."

Government household data show that poverty rates have fallen consistently since the early 1990s roughly in line with the rapid rise of remittances (see Figure 2).

UNDP estimates that, nationally, 74 percent of households that receive remittances are not poor as compared with 63 percent of households without remittances. In rural areas, 71 percent of households that receive remittances have incomes above the official poverty line whereas only 52 percent of households without remittances are considered to be above the poverty line.


Figure 2. Poverty Rates for Households in Urban and Rural Areas in El Salvador, 1975 to 2002
Note: the "U-Po" line represents urban poverty levels, the "R-Po" line rural poverty levels, and the "Po" line overall poverty levels.
Source: Author's calculations from the Encuesta de Hogares de Propósitos Múltiples 1990 to 2002; data from PNUD (2005) for 2002 to 2006; data for 1975 are from Deere and Diskin (1985); data for 1985 are from FUSADES 1996.

Nearly 81 percent of remittances are spent on consumption items, mostly food and utilities (see Table 1). After food and utilities, human capital expenditures (medical expenses and education) are the next most important category, accounting for over 10 percent of expenditures. Savings are also an important use of remittances.


Table 1. Principal Use of Remittances in El Salvador by Category

Use National (percent) Urban (percent) Rural (percent)
Consumption 80.5 78.8 83.6
Housing 0.7 0.9 0.3
Petty trade 0.7 1.0 0.1
Medical expenses 4.8 3.9 6.3
Education 6.6 7.7 4.7
Agricultural inputs 0.5 0.2 0.9
Savings 5.6 6.6 3.8
Other 0.7 0.9 0.3
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: PNUD (2005) Table 2.14 calculations from the Encuesta de Hogares de Propósitos Múltiples for 2004.

Given this expenditure profile, it is not surprising that remittances appear to have limited multiplier effects in the Salvadoran economy. Moreover, the receipt of remittances can contribute to local inflation and land speculation.

U.S. journalist Nurith Aizenman reported in 2006 that land and housing prices were rising sharply in communities that had a greater density of households with migrants abroad. In one community in La Unión, prices for newly built houses with U.S.-style amenities ranged from US$39,000 to US$93,000. Real estate companies estimated that about 75 percent of the buyers are Salvadorans based in the United States.

Engaging the Diaspora

As remittances change the character of the Salvadoran financial sector, the government is increasingly involved in encouraging and managing the flows of people and remittances. Migration is a policy concern that affects the design of state institutions and political rhetoric in the press and media.

One example of the redesign of state institutions is the creation of the Directorate General of Attention for the Community Abroad, inaugurated under the 1999-2004 presidency of Francisco Flores.

The defining platform for the Directorate General is summarized in a 2002 document entitled "Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century of Integration and Linking with the Salvadoran Community Abroad," which provides a detailed statistical picture of Salvadorans abroad and the remittances sent home. It also delineates a series of activities that will "[f]ortify attention to and links with the Salvadoran communities abroad."

This document identifies Salvadoran migrants abroad as "clients" and refers to the need to develop a state policy that offers consular activities and assistance to the diaspora population that is informed by a "spirit of service." The principal goal of such a policy would be to "contribute to establishing an axis for development based on the potential of the Salvadoran community abroad, securing their social, economic, and political ties."

In order to fulfill this promise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has modified and modernized its services. The ministry currently maintains a website, as does the Embassy of El Salvador in the United States, with information on Salvadorans living abroad, legal assistance for immigration to the United States and other host countries, and the consular services offered. Detailed information is available about the different types of visa statuses that Salvadorans are eligible for and the array of nongovernmental and private organizations dedicated to facilitating migrant regularization or legalization.

As part of the ongoing campaign to renew channels of legalization, the Salvadoran government has successfully lobbied the U.S. government to expand and renew TPS for Salvadorans since 2001.

In January 2005, the newly elected Salvadoran President, Tony Saca, launched a campaign in Silver Spring, Maryland, to remind Salvadorans to reregister for TPS. Saca also pledged to win immigrants another extension of TPS, which the U.S. government granted in March 2006. He fervently assured immigrants that, despite their accusations, the government was not only thinking of remittances when it lobbied for the extension.

The government also has redefined institutions to accommodate and manage remittances and the diaspora. Among these state institutions is the Social Investment Fund (Fondo de Inversión Social para el Desarrollo Local, or FISDL), which began to focus on Salvadorans in the diaspora in late 1999. Established in 1990, FIDSL grew out of the social investment fund approach, which fosters local government and community engagement.

The FISDL program, called United for Solidarity (Unidos por la Solidaridad), promotes the participation of municipalities, NGOs, Salvadoran organizations, and hometown associations (HTAs) abroad in the financing and building of small infrastructure for schools, communal recreation facilities, and health centers. This program is modeled on a similar one operated by the Mexican government that matches funds from HTAs in the United States and Canada. To date, 14 separate grant competitions through the United for Solidarity program have channeled more than US$11 million to 45 projects in 27 municipalities throughout El Salvador.

As Figure 3 shows, the bulk of funds for these transnational projects comes from FISDL (60 percent) with the HTAs themselves contributing the about 19 percent (or roughly $2.13 million) and the municipalities contributing a further 20 percent of funds. Although the total amount of diaspora funds leveraged by this initiative is small, the program creates a platform for state-led engagement with the diaspora. From a political perspective, the government is attempting to expand the scope of its regulation to include migrants living abroad.

The careful and deliberate cultivation of HTAs led to the creation of a Vice Ministry for Exterior Relations for Salvadorans Abroad in 2004. Its primary objective is to develop policies and programs to maintain ties with the Salvadoran diaspora and facilitate their links with El Salvador.


Figure 3. Funding Sources for United for Solidarity, 2000 to 2004
Source: Source: FISDL (2003, 2004).

As the state expands its engagement with the diaspora, Salvadorans abroad have responded. In the United States, Salvadorans are trying to replicate the Cuban lobby in Miami, and although the coalition is loose and frequently contested, it brings together a variety of diaspora organizations seeking to advocate for immigrant rights in the United States and lobby both the Salvadoran and U.S. governments.

One expression of this emerging coalition is the Salvadoran conference "Salvadorans in the World" ("Salvadoreños en el Mundo"). To date, conferences have been held in Los Angeles; Washington, DC; and Boston, bringing together Salvadoran diaspora organizations to develop a common political platform. Thus far, the platform includes demanding the right to vote abroad and pressing for greater attention to their needs as investors and remitters.

Looking Ahead

El Salvador's most important export has become its people. As the diaspora grows, the Salvadoran state is progressively more interested in cultivating ties and maintaining links with migrants abroad, creating state institutions that encourage private and collective investment, and extending voting rights to the migrants abroad.

Although remittances are a critical source of foreign exchange, remittances have not benefited all citizens. Poverty is declining, but inequalities in income and consumption measures of well-being appear to be rising, fueled in part by the availability of remittances. In tandem with these developments, regional migration from Honduras and Nicaragua is also rising — a response to local labor demand and prevailing differences in wages between El Salvador and its neighboring countries.

The Salvadoran government has generally viewed President George W. Bush, a staunch supporter of immigration reform, as an ally in helping its migrants in the United States. But with immigration reform now unlikely to take place before the 2008 presidential elections, the Salvadoran government will have to be patient.

The author thanks MPI's Aaron Matteo Terrazas and Alejandro Rivas for their research assistance.


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