When Milena Mayorga, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, recently traveled to the San Joaquin Valley it was not a ceremonial visit.
Mayorga met with several Valley leaders, including Dr. Saul Jimenez-Sandoval, president of Fresno State. She also went to Fresno City Hall, Madera Community College, a ranch in western Fresno County, Mendota, and the Mexican Consulate in Fresno.
Her mission: to advocate for the interests of Salvadorans in the Valley, and to help with the final touches needed to open the first Salvadoran consulate in Fresno.
“We have been making a big effort to expand our services, and get even closer to our nationals,” Mayorga said during a phone interview.
She said everything is ready to open the consulate “at the end of May or the first week of June,” but they have to wait for paperwork from the U.S. State Department to finalize [the registration of] the 14 staff members required to attend to the needs of the community.
“The facility is ready, the machines are ready. The chairs are ready, we are ready to open,” he said. “We just need the staff members already in place.”
A second consulate is scheduled to open in San Bernardino. El Salvador currently has consulates in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Other consulates are scheduled to open this year in Minnesota and New Mexico.
Consulate services include renewing or replacing lost or stolen passports, assisting with tax returns and absentee voting, certifying documents, registering births of citizens living in the U.S., certifying marriages or divorces abroad, arranging emergency evacuations, and connecting residents with medical or legal assistance.
“This will help us to relieve bottlenecks and shorten the time it takes for Salvadorans to be able to go to a consulate,” Mayorga said. “We know they have to leave work that day to visit.”
Nearly half of the 1.4 million Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. live in California. Mayorga said 60 percent of Mendota’s residents are Salvadoran.
In the past, the Salvadoran consulate in Los Angeles set up a mobile office in Mendota once or twice a year to help with services such as passports and identification cards.
“It’s going to be much more practical for them to be able to come to Fresno to do every single errand they need to do,” said Mayorga, 46.
The ambassador — a former model who represented El Salvador at Miss Universe 1996, where she finished in the top 10 — took time to answer other questions.
Q. What led you to visit the San Joaquin Valley?
A. “It’s been because of the demand we have for Salvadorans, Salvadoran workers, to come to the San Joaquin Valley. We know that there is a shortage of labor and that is why we have been approached by a group of businessmen who are dedicated to agriculture and who wanted us to present our program to them. We created a mobility program, we have an instruction from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they are the ones who are looking at this temporary visa program, which are the H agricultural visas
“We are working together with the administration and they want our citizens to have legal ways to come and work and take advantage of this type of program where they earn money, they go back to their country of origin and that money is invested.”
Q. Why is this program necessary?
“In El Salvador, in our case, families are not being separated nor do they have to go through that. That is why it is so dangerous when they migrate illegally. This is a way, a very good alternative that we are making known to them and we know that it is a win-win situation because the United States needs the labor of Salvadorans and we still need jobs in our country.
“The U.S. administration always has had this program. It is a program of temporary agricultural visas. But now we have the news that the visas are being granted as a result of a request we made together with the [Honduran and] Guatemalan ambassadors.”
Q. How many of these visas are available?
A. “Well, for the world the figure had remained at about 70,000 and I think it is expanding for El Salvador. We started last year with 6,000 that were shared with Guatemala and Honduras. Then they increased them to 11,000, including Haiti. And now I’m told that a couple of weeks ago, I think, it was about 20,000 that had been issued.
“They are in high demand because there is a lack of labor for industries such as hospitality and tourism. And that is where we need to promote the Salvadorans, because by tradition they go to Mexico because of the proximity. But they also go, for example, to countries where they already speak English, such as Jamaica.”
Q. How is El Salvador helping these workers?
A. “Together with Guatemala and Honduras, we have had different workshops where we are promoting our workers.
“El Salvador is very advanced in its vaccination campaign. We are already applying the 4th dose. The vaccines that we are promoting in the country are the ones that are accepted here in the United States and this is a competitive advantage over our neighbors.
“We have a database of more than 70,000 Salvadorans whose links with the country have been studied so that they can return. Their profile has been studied so that they do not have criminal records, and also their police record. And then, this is our advantage, we offer it to them.
“We also have an alliance with especially popular airlines, with a (discount of) 30% on the tickets to be able to compete with Mexico. They are immediate neighbors. We need to have other alternatives and where we compete more is when workers have to arrive by air.
“That’s where we are trying to promote the Salvadoran worker, and there has been a lot of openness because the Salvadoran is known for being very hardworking, very dedicated, always gives more than what is asked of him, is always willing to learn, to learn also very quickly. And then the good reputation of our workers is well known here in the United States.”
Q. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala and Honduras earlier this year and said that the problem of undocumented immigrants could be solved by helping those countries and El Salvador keep their residents at home. What are your thoughts on that?
A. “I am going to talk a little bit about the social investment that we are making, which is unprecedented. For example, in education 3.8%, which was more or less the budget that was managed for investment in education 3.8% of the GDP (gross domestic product), now it is 5.1% of our GDP.
“That is to say that it has increased considerably to improve schools, infrastructure to give students computers, to prepare our workforce of the future.
“In health, likewise, all the hospitals have been remodeled, the COVID Hospital was built, which is the El Salvador Hospital. We have vaccinated our people and I believe that the investment in health has also been considerable.
“The investment in security is unprecedented. Since the beginning of President Bukele’s term in office, almost three years ago, he began to give much more budget to the security issue because before they were emigrating because of the war. Then we have the phenomenon of insecurity due to gangs and the lack of job opportunities.
“So we are already covering improvements in education, health, security because we have to adjust homicides and we are missing that 4th pillar which is to provide jobs for Salvadorans in terms of promoting the country to be an investment site.
“Last year we had double-digit growth, which has not been seen since the 90s. This is thanks to public investment and not to private investment. This year we are also projecting that we are going to have a great growth only from the Salvadorans who are here in the United States, which is the majority, which is about 95 percent of the Salvadoran diaspora.
“We are projecting $400 million in investment. They are investing in infrastructure, they are making hotels, they are investing in restaurants, they are also opening, they are investing in agriculture, in buying farms to produce coffee.
“That is to say, there is quite a lot of private investment projected and this obviously what it causes for us is a cascade effect, because there is employment and the whole supply chain.
“President Bukele has a project to modernize the entire infrastructure. We are going to have a new airport in the eastern zone, which is the zone where there was the greatest exodus of Salvadorans in the past because there was nothing, there was no investment, and there was no development.
“We are going to have the Pacific train, which will cross all of El Salvador and will go to Guatemala, sharing with them the route to have access to the Atlantic. This is a dry canal. With this dry canal, we are going to compete with Panama. So all this public investment will generate much more movement.
“The whole study of the city is already being done, the development of first-world cities, as it has been done. For example in Qatar, in Dubai, companies that know how to develop first-world cities will be able to build this city in the East. So the projects are so that, in the future, Salvadorans can find those jobs on their own.
“This diplomatic mission in the United States has a promise of investment of $3 billion and has brought 375 investors. They are all registering their companies in El Salvador. I can tell you that El Salvador is now being very attractive because several reasons. For example, we too have increased tourism by 30% because of First (Bitcoin) City and because of Bitcoin, so President Bukele is doing his part.
“Let’s remember that [we are trying] to counteract 30 years of exodus, and there is also an idiosyncrasy of wanting to migrate to the United States. And here, let’s say, many families have links in El Salvador with their relatives and believe that under this administration, they are seeing migration as more comprehensive, more holistic.
“I think it’s a message that is sometimes misunderstood. So that’s why it’s challenging for migrants because it’s something very cultural for our countries. But once they find job opportunities and entrepreneurial and growth potential, it’s something that we’re going to see over time, it’s not overnight.”
Q: What is the latest news on TPS and Salvadorans?
A. “An exception that was signed with President Trump that at the end of TPS Salvadorans could have one more year of extension –that is, 365 days of guarantee to stay and remain.
“But in the end, I think the path we are all pursuing is a permanent solution. What we want is immigration reform and we have already been in talks with congressmen.”
Q. The international media has written many stories portraying El Salvador as a country dominated by gangs, violence, and poverty. What would you like to tell the world about your country?
A. “It is a very complex phenomenon that was born in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. The gang members were deported to our country without any process to give them continuity. They were people who brought crimes to El Salvador, and there they were released. It is a growing phenomenon.
“It found a niche where migration also promoted young people to be part of this family, because their family, their father or mother were here in the United States, a very complex phenomenon. However, it has caused a lot of grief and pain to Salvadoran families. It is one of the reasons why many people have had to flee the country.
“I think only Salvadorans will understand how it has impacted our country. But El Salvador is more than that.
“And today the image of El Salvador is changing because of several reasons that I already have mentioned. We have a president who is the number one promoter of things in our country, a young president.
“The best evaluated by many polling houses, he is a president who has a very good image among our Salvadoran diaspora and in our country. A president who is about to complete three years in office and who has an approval rating well above 90% in many cases, such as security or the fight for young people.
“He is one of the main images that make El Salvador look different. And the Bitcoin thing too. Have you seen that one? That is the alternative in a country that is opening the doors to cryptocurrencies.
“So El Salvador is starting to change. They no longer see us only for the bad, but for other alternatives that give a different vision of a generation that is transforming the country, as I mentioned. This is a process, but we are on the way to making the changes that are needed so that El Salvador can get out of poverty and crime.
“And people who know the country know that it is a country that has a lot to give because our country is a beautiful country, with hardworking people and we are promoting a new image of El Salvador”.