Recently deported Dilan lives in fear of the MS-13 gang, but discovers El Salvador’s booming call centre industry.
Every year, more than 13,000 people are deported from the United States to El Salvador. Many are returning to a country they have not seen in years.
They must locate family, find work and stay alive in the capital, San Salvador, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
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Recently deported Dilan, 18, returns to one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital, controlled by the notorious MS-13 gang.
After his first week back, Dilan meets Juan Martin, a recruiter for the country’s booming call centre industry. Juan encourages Dilan to start life anew like the tens of thousands of deportees employed by call centres. But first Dilan needs to secure a Salvadoran ID.
By John Dickie and Neil Brandvold
You hear so much about deportations from the US to El Salvador. So many figures and statistics. But what happens on a personal level? What happens to an ordinary young person, who left El Salvador as an infant, grew up in the US and then gets deported to a home country they barely know, to a city ravaged by gang violence?
We wanted to look beyond the polarising policy and legal questions and instead tell the intimate story of a human reality, to follow the journey of a young deportee from the moment they touch down in El Salvador and witness their first few weeks of painful readaptation.
Our journey began where the film begins: at the immigration centre where deportees are processed upon arrival. We spoke to many of the younger deportees there, but few, understandably, were willing to be filmed.
Most were in a state of semi-shock, in a strange limbo, having been suddenly ripped out of their lives in the US, now totally at a loss about what to do next or what awaited them outside the gates on the wild streets of San Salvador.
When we met Dilan, whose journey we ended up following in this film, this was exactly what was on his mind. His biggest fear at that moment was that gangsters would notice the large tattoo on his arm and kill him. And he wasn’t exaggerating; it is a real fear. Tattoos can get you killed here, especially the numbers 18 or 13, the symbols of the two main rival gangs.
It took Dilan almost a week to even set foot outside the house.
What struck us about Dilan was that he was a regular kid from the US suburbs, who spoke in classic teenage slang and barely spoke Spanish, who had gone to high school and had worked in a fast food joint like any kid from the US, and who, upon deportation, was about to be dropped into one of the worst, most gang-infested neighbourhoods on earth.
It took Dilan almost a week to even set foot outside the house. But when his cousin Jonathan, who had worked in call centres, went out looking for a job, Dilan tagged along.
We also knew about the recent boom in the call centre industry and outsourcing services for US companies, which was being fuelled by the influx of English-speaking deportees, and this was also part of the story we wanted to tell.
Was this a genuine opportunity for Salvadorans to find good work and try and stay in their country, to not emigrate and risk their lives crossing Mexico and live undocumented in the US?
TPS was instituted to protect people from being returned to a place where their lives would be put at risk, whether due to a natural disaster or sociopolitical problems. Clearly, with gang violence and security problems worsening in El Salvador, these conditions have not changed.
The industry is still young, but Juan Martin, the call centre recruiter featured in this film, certainly thinks so. Having been deported himself, he sees the only way for people to be able to live freely and in peace, and for El Salvador to overcome its problems, is for Salvadorans to stay in their country.
Temporary Protection Status (TPS), in place for Salvadorans in the US since 2001, was not renewed in January 2018, putting almost 200,000 people at risk of deportation. TPS was instituted to protect people from being returned to a place where their lives would be put at risk, whether due to a natural disaster or sociopolitical problems.
Clearly, with gang violence and security problems worsening in El Salvador, these conditions have not changed. And with a ruling pending on Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive order signed by former US President Barack Obama protecting young people who arrived to the US as undocumented minors from deportation, Dilan’s story was like the perfect case study.
He arrived in the US at the age of five and was deported back to a violent society at the age of 18, putting his life at risk. So aside from the legal question, was it ethical to send someone from a good home in the US and put them in danger in El Salvador?