The Roots of Immigration from El Salvador
and Current Policy Debates

By Justin Sybenga

Unit Summary

Child’s Drawing, San José Las Flores, El Salvador

Child’s Drawing, San José Las Flores, El Salvador

Immigration has always been a hotly debated political issue in the United States, but the temperature has risen in the last number of years. During the eight years of the Obama presidency, more than 2.5 million immigrants were deported from the United States. Donald Trump’s promises to take tough action on illegal immigration and to build a wall on the U.S. - Mexico border were staples of his campaign.  Shortly after being elected president, Trump reversed Obama’s 2014 executive orders directing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize the deportation of recent arrivals or convicted criminals, essentially categorizing all undocumented immigrants as high priorities. Then, in September of 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, ending the temporary reprieve from deportation of those who migrated to the United States with their parents. Finally, the Department of Homeland Security has announced it will not be renewing the Temporary Protected Status designation for refugees from several countries that endured natural disasters or military conflicts.

Most of the current immigration debates ignore the historical roots of migration to the United States and the history of immigration policy in the latter half of the 20th century. 

This series of lessons uses the country of El Salvador as a case study to provide important historical context for contemporary immigration issues. The lessons were developed for use in conjunction with the website When We Were Young There Was a War.

The unit begins with an exploration of how the Civil War in El Salvador in the 1980s prompted the initial surge of migration from El Salvador to the United States, and the push and pull factors that have impacted immigration from El Salvador since then. Next, students research the various immigration policies that have regulated immigration from El Salvador since 1965. Then students fact-check common myths about immigration to the United States. Finally, students select one of the current immigration policy questions and research competing perspectives before developing their own position, which they formulate in a persuasive essay format or an advocacy letter to an elected official.

Guiding Questions

  • What factors were responsible for the waves of migration from El Salvador to the United States since the 1980s?
  • What values and principles should guide U.S. immigration policy?
  • How can the United States resolve the current controversies surrounding immigration policy?


  • Lesson One:  Building Background Knowledge:  Why Salvadorans Have Migrated to the United States (45-60 minutes)
  • Lesson Two:  U.S. Immigration History: A Policy In Flux (150-180 minutes)
  • Lesson Three: Immigration Fact or Fiction (45-60 minutes)
  • Lesson Four: Immigration Policy: Taking a Stand (150-180 minutes)

Learning Objectives/Targets

  • To understand the root causes of the waves of migration from El Salvador to the United States since the 1980s
  • To identify the major shifts in U.S. immigration policy since 1965, explaining the events that caused the new policies, the groups impacted, the specific regulations, the benefits, and the restrictions or limitations of the new policies
  • To determine the accuracy of commonly held beliefs about immigration by investigating statistical evidence
  • To analyze the pros and cons of current policies that affect different groups of immigrants from El Salvador
  • To form a policy recommendation that addresses controversies surrounding a current immigration policy in the United States