SAN SALVADOR—When Jose Mario Escobar returned to El Salvador in 2007 after 15 years in Maryland, he felt like a stranger in his own country. In addition to spending time with his aging parents, he had planned to use his savings to open a new business. But he soon learned that getting a loan and registering the business would be nearly impossible, since his work or credit history from the U.S. wasn’t recognized in El Salvador. Beyond that, the country of his youth had been overrun by gangs, and he felt lost.
“I felt foreign. I didn’t feel like this was my country ... I didn’t recognize the streets,” he said. “You say to yourself, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
As Escobar struggled to adjust to life in El Salvador, he grew frustrated at a lack of government help. Instead of receiving a loan in El Salvador, he returned to the U.S. for a few months to save enough to return to open the business. Now, over 10 years later, he’s running for Congress in San Salvador to try to change the way other returnees are treated. On Sunday, March 4, Salvadorans will cast their ballots to determine if Escobar will represent them for the next four years.
“The current government has treated us terribly,” said Escobar, 46, at the tire shop he owns. “Here they examine you and give you money for one day. Then what?”
More than 200,000 Salvadorans have been deported from the U.S. since 2007. In President Donald Trump’s first year in office, more than 18,800 Salvadorans were deported. That’s actually down from 20,500 the previous year. But the profile of deportees has changed under Trump: they are more likely to have lived in the U.S. for years, making a return more complicated. Once back in El Salvador, this population faces challenges ranging from trying to get a loan to reclaiming property in the U.S. to finding a job. Politicians often express their support of migrants and deportees, but many feel they have few true allies in congress who share their lived experience.
For the past four months, Escobar has been sharing his story throughout San Salvador as he campaigns to represent the city for the conservative National Coalition Party (PCN, for its Spanish acronym). Reintegration of returned migrants, particularly through promoting small businesses, has been a key part of his platform. He’s the only candidate running on a platform of helping returned migrants and deportees.
Last week, he visited the Salvadoran Migrant Institute (INSAMI), which director Cesar Rios says is not common for the country’s politicians.
During the meeting, Escobar said he felt identified with the stories migrants shared with him. “I've been through what you’ve been through, I feel like one of you,” he told them.
After the meeting, Escobar spoke to deportees about possible job opportunities at the call center he owns, which offers positions for both English and Spanish speakers. Call centers have been one of the few industries to open their doors to deportees.
“We would hope that young politicians like José Mario incorporate themselves into the national political scene,” Ríos said. “He would be one of the few migrants to effectively become part of politics.”
An estimated 2 million Salvadorans live in the U.S., many who fled the country during the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992 and left at least 75,000 dead. In January, the Trump administration decided to end Temporary Protected Status for an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans working legally in the U.S. In this political climate, some Salvadorans have chosen to return voluntarily, as Escobar did. The exact number is unknown, but Rios reports that he has observed an increase of Salvadorans returning on their own terms under the Trump administration.
That makes Escobar’s candidacy even more critical, Ríos said. “He has been a migrant and a businessman, so I think he can understand more easily the reality of many future deportees.”
Escobar migrated legally to the United States in 1992 after he was violently robbed by a group of men who threatened to kill him. They mentioned his family, leading Escobar to believe that he was specifically targeted rather than just being victim to a random act of violence. He settled in Maryland, where he had extended family, and started working in construction. He started to learn English and found a better job as a loan officer.
But as Escobar’s parents grew older, he felt the pull to return to El Salvador. He had an easier time than many Salvadorans; he had time to plan his return, meaning he could pack up his house and sell his car in the U.S. And he can still travel there to visit his adult children.
The most pressing issue for deportees is their reinsertion into Salvadoran society – finding a job, reconnecting with family, accessing healthcare and rebuilding a life in their home country. They are looking for a candidate who can understand their reality and make concrete changes.
“He can help given that he has the experience of a migrant,” said Guillermo, a 63-year-old who lived in Texas for 23 years before being deported to El Salvador two years ago for a DUI. He asked that his name be changed because of the stigma that deportation carries in El Salvador. “[The experience] is great to be able to help other people.”
On Sunday, Guillermo will vote for the first time in more that two decades. Escobar’s story appeals to him, but like many Salvadorans, he remains skeptical of the country’s politicians.
During campaign season, “politicians tell you they are going to take you out to eat, but after, when they get into office, you’ll never see them again,” he said.
Escobar has pledged to support entrepreneurship among deportees, improve consular services in the U.S. for returnees who have left property and investments there, and increase government funding for job placement and health programs for deportees.
“With the help of the national assembly, I am going to have more opportunities to be able to help these people. I’m going to have more tools to be able to do more,” he said. “I see how these [migrants] suffer.”