The Peace Corps has suspended its half-century-old program in El Salvador, highlighting the violence that has wracked the Central American nation and helped propel a wave of migration to the United States.
In a statement, the agency begun by President John F. Kennedy said it is pulling out its 55 volunteers, who work on youth development and community economic development projects, “due to the ongoing security environment.” El Salvador has suffered a rash of gang and drug-related violence, though Peace Corps officials said no specific security incidents or threats triggered the suspension.
The gang wars helped fuel a renewed surge in recent months of undocumented families with children flocking across America’s southwest border, the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That, in turn, triggered a series of New Year’s weekend raids in which federal agents took into custody 121 undocumented adults and children and deported 77 of them.
Some advocates for immigrants expressed concern Thursday that the Obama administration has shown itself willing to deport people back to the violence-plagued nation while pulling out its own Peace Corps volunteers because of that very violence. “It’s very problematic,” said Guillermo Cantor, deputy research director for the American Immigration Council, a Washington D.C. advocacy group. “Even though there is an acknowledgment by our government that the situation in Central America is so serious that U.S. citizens should not be going there under these programs, it’s ok to send people who are fleeing those conditions back to those countries, and who knows what’s going to happen to them?”
U.S. officials dismissed any comparison between the Peace Corps’ move and the immigration raids. Officials said the administration remains very concerned about the violence to the south. They pointed to a series of steps the government has taken in response, including obtaining $750 million in the new federal budget to fight Central American poverty and gang violence and this week’s expansion of America’s refugee resettlement program. Vice President Biden and homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson were in Guatemala on Thursday, partly for talks on security and other issues.
“We recognize the serious underlying conditions that cause some people to flee their home countries,” said Peter Boogaard, a White House spokesman. He said the administration is trying “to provide a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey” many people are undertaking north from Central America. At the same time, he indicated that the White House is not backing away from the immigration enforcement actions, which have triggered an uproar among advocates and many Democrats.
“We cannot allow our borders to be open to illegal migration,” Boogaard said. “Those who come here illegally will be sent home after being provided an opportunity to have their cases heard, consistent with our laws and values.”
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Of the 77 people deported thus far, none were sent back to El Salvador, DHS officials said Thursday. The majority, 37, were deported to Mexico, while 26 were sent to Honduras and 14 to Guatemala.
El Salvador’s death toll recently spiked to the highest levels since the country’s civil war ended in 1992 after a truce between two most powerful street gangs – Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang – crumbled in 2014. The 2015 murder rate of about 104 homicides per 100,000 people, an increase of about 70 percent from the year before, is estimated to be among the highest in the world for countries not at war.
The violence led the State Department to issue a travel warning in June urging U.S. citizens going to El Salvador to be extra careful because “crime and violence levels in El Salvador remain high.” Since 2010, the alert said, 34 U.S. citizens have been murdered there, including a nine-year-old child in December 2013.
The Peace Corps, which began its El Salvador program in 1962 and has sent more than 2,300 volunteers to that country, re-evaluated because of a recent security assessment, the agency said. “There is no evidence that Americans or American interests are being targeted in El Salvador, and the rate of crimes against Peace Corps Volunteers in El Salvador is among the lowest in the region,” said a Peace Corps official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “However, this decision is based on the safety and security environment in the country as a whole.”
The agency, the official said, “will continue to monitor the security environment and reassess the security situation at an appropriate future date to determine when Volunteers can return.”
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