The Legacy of Deportations in El Salvador

In the 1990s, the United States began deporting gangsters who had been hardened on the streets of American inner cities back to El Salvador, a country they'd fled as small children during a long and bloody civil war. When they first arrived back in El Salvador, most of them barely spoke Spanish. What they found was a country hollowed out by a decade of fighting. Families had been broken up; the police forces were weak. There was barely an economy to speak of. The gang grudges from the U.S. migrated with them. And before long, a full-blown gang war had taken root in El Salvador.

Within a decade, the violence had gotten as bad as it had been during the civil war, and El Salvador become one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. Over the last eight years, the United States has deported a record number of people—2.7 million over the last presidential administration. More than 150,000 of them have been forced to return to El Salvador. Many of the deportees speak fluent English, the result of years spent living in the United States.

These deportees often arrive with nothing. Generally, they're stigmatized for having been deported. Local gangsters extort and brutalize them; employers refuse to hire them, and banks don't extend them credit. Those who can have found work in an unlikely new industry: call centers. American corporations are increasingly outsourcing their customer service and technical support to Central America, where there's a growing English-speaking workforce. Deportations are helping fuel the industry.

For The New Yorker, journalist Jonathan Blitzer reports on the world of Salvadoran call centers, and the cottage industry they've created, in turn: English-language schools to train students for work in the call centers. These schools are run and staffed by deportees.