Although El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, it is also the most densely populated. As of 2019, about 1.4 million people of Salvadoran heritage live in the United States—equivalent to 20 percent of the population. The situation of almost 200,000 US residents changed dramatically in 2018 with the federally mandated removal of their Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Changing US policies also led to changes in migration patterns, with increasing numbers traveling by land to the southern US border with Mexico, in contrast to previously dominant air travel and arrival through points such as New York City.
The historic role of El Salvador’s government in supporting US interests in Central America was responsible for much of the prior preferential treatment for Salvadorans in comparison to people of other nations. In the first half of the twentieth century, economic and political upheavals increased out-migration, but the majority of migrants went to neighboring countries. A significant percentage reached Panama and worked on the canal construction. By the 1960s, one important change was the US policy of economic support. The Cold War programs of the Alliance for Progress were largely intended to prevent Communist governments from taking hold in other countries, as had just occurred in Cuba. Military training and support, along with economic development assistance, increased tremendously by the 1970s, and further accelerated when Nicaragua became a Communist-led country after its 1979 revolution. In the so-called Contra War of the 1980s, thousands of Salvadorans died and countless others fled. Many received political asylum in the United States, establishing strong communities on the East Coast.
In the post-war decades, political instability and massive debt have characterized El Salvador, with limited sustainable development. Outmigration has continued at a steady rate. In the twenty-first century, drug-related activity accelerated, including the formation of powerful gangs funded by cartels. The precarious existence of most Salvadorans, the desire to remove young people from the dangers of cartel recruitment, and the search for economic opportunities have all combined to motivate a constant stream of migration.