In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Salvadoran-Americans

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Causes of Salvadoran Migration
  • Journey to the United States
  • Socio-psychological Stress and War Trauma
  • Sanctuary and Solidarity Movement
  • Transnationalism from Above
  • Transnationalism from Below
  • Context of Reception
  • Political Mobilization

Latino Studies Salvadoran-Americans
Leisy Abrego, Ariana J. Valle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0096


Salvadorans have been migrating in small numbers to the United States since the early 1900s, but it was the brutal US-funded civil war that created the conditions for the first massive wave of migration in the 1980s. Although the war officially ended in 1992, the lack of economic opportunities in the country, the enforcement of new neoliberal policies, and access to well-developed social networks with people abroad ensure continued migration. Current estimates suggest that 20–35 percent of persons born in El Salvador have migrated—mainly to the United States. With a population of roughly 2 million, Salvadorans make up the third largest US Latino group. Migration is likely to continue, in large part due to the consequences of free trade agreements that limit access to jobs and because of increasing violence in the region. Once in the United States, Salvadorans have faced many barriers. Because the US government supported the military with aid, weapons, and training during the civil war, when people fled, the very same government refused to consider them as refugees, instead blocking them from the possibility of legalization. Half of Salvadorans, therefore, continue to reside in the United States in tenuous legal statuses that make it difficult to establish roots and thrive. Moreover, Salvadorans arrived at a historical moment when the US economy shifted to service sector jobs, with few opportunities to access benefits or move up into managerial positions. Among the second generation—the children of Salvadoran immigrants—conditions are also dire. Growing up at a time when funding for public education has been drastically reduced, this population has suffered the consequences in the form of high drop-out and low college attendance rates. On the other hand, Salvadoran immigrants have also resisted and organized politically for recognition and social change. Indeed, they are recognized as key participants in the labor and immigrant rights movements, and several of the community-based organizations that they created in the early 1980s continue to serve the immigrant population more than thirty years later. Given Salvadorans’ relatively short history in the United States, the academic research on this group is still largely developing. This article maps out some of the key threads in existing literature on Salvadorans in the United States.

General Overviews

It has been over thirty years since the first massive wave of migration from El Salvador to the United States. Today, Salvadorans continue to join the ongoing migration stream of political and economic refugees from the past. Given the very limited resources of most immigrants from El Salvador (Leslie 1993; United Nations Development Program 2005; Migration Policy Institute 2014) and the various notable legal and economic barriers they face in this country (Hamilton and Chinchilla 2001, Migration Policy Institute 2014), it is understandable that few have been able to step away from political and daily struggles to document the community’s history in the United States (Cordova 2005). In these three decades, while immigrants and their U.-raised children joined US communities (Migration Policy Institute 2014), little is known about their struggles and contributions. Despite now numbering the third largest Latino group nationally and the second largest in California, their stories are rarely captured in holistic ways in academic work (Dockterman 2011, Terrazas 2010). This section brings together some of the limited sources (including books, articles, and reports) that aim to tell holistic stories of the migration and current situation of Salvadorans in the United States.

  • Cordova, Carlos B. The Salvadoran Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.

    Catering to a general readership provides brief review of various topics including Salvadoran history, socio-demographic characteristics, migration waves, and factors influencing movement. Reviews political reception in the United States and impacts of contemporary immigration laws on this group. Assesses settlement including socioeconomic dimensions, political/civic participation, health issues, and intergroup relations.

  • Dockterman, Daniel. Hispanics of Salvadoran Origin in the United States, 2009. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, 2011.

    Offers a concise review of Salvadoran group’s demographic, economic, and income characteristics. Compares Salvadoran group to Latinos in general and to the US population as a whole. This article is useful for obtaining a snapshot of Salvadoran population in the United States and their socio-demographic and economic position.

  • Hamilton, Nora, and Norma Chinchilla. Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

    Important comprehensive look at the history of migration and settlement of Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Los Angeles—the city with the highest concentration of these two groups. Based on interviews and surveys, the authors explore social networks, available jobs, sense of belonging, and political organizing practices of immigrants.

  • Leslie, Leigh A. “Families Fleeing War: The Case of Central Americans.” Marriage and Family Review 19.1–2 (1993): 193–205.

    DOI: 10.1300/J002v19n01_11

    Useful for its review of literature that covers group characteristics, motivations for migrating, settlement experiences, and impact of migration on families. Concludes Central Americans have an unfavorable outlook due to high stress levels, limited resources, and lacking US governmental support. Unstable and uncertain conditions in home countries make return unlikely.

  • Migration Policy Institute. The Salvadoran Diaspora in the United States. Washington, DC: United States, July 2014. Rockefeller-Aspen Diaspora Program.

    Provides a current review of the Salvadoran population in the United States. Useful for its overview of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of Salvadoran migrants and the US-born Salvadoran generation. Also reviews the uncertain and precarious legal statuses of many Salvadorans and its implications for their economic, educational, and political incorporation.

  • Terrazas, Aaron. Salvadoran Immigrants in the United States. Washington, DC: Migration Information Source, 2010.

    Overview focuses on foreign-born Salvadorans in the United States. Report provides succinct examination of contemporary Salvadoran migration, current population size, and group’s social and economic characteristics. Attention is also given to group’s regional distribution in the United States, including major settlement states and cities. Legal status characteristics of population are also reviewed.

  • United Nations Development Program. Informe Sobre el Desarrollo Humano de El Salvador 2005: Una Mirada al Nuevo Nosotros, Impacto de las Migraciones. San Salvador: Consejo Nacional para el Desarrollo Sostenible en El Savador, 2005.

    Written in Spanish, provides comprehensive review of US-bound migration waves, settlement and incorporation patterns, and migrants’ socioeconomic characteristics. Also examines effects of emigration and remittances on Salvadoran communities, non-migrants, economic development, and social inequality. Impacts of migration on family unit, gender roles, culture, and conceptions of membership/belonging also assessed. Available online in Spanish at Programa de las Naciones Unidas Para el Desarrollo.

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