Deportation as Outsourcing in El Salvador’s Call Center Industry

Call Center

When he’s stand­ing, Pete tow­ers over most Sal­vado­rans. His height, buzzed hair­cut, and U.S. ath­let­ic jer­seys eas­i­ly dis­tin­guish him in a crowd. Like me, Pete gives off a decid­ed­ly for­eign air. He was born in El Sal­vador but emi­grat­ed with his par­ents and broth­ers at the age of five in 1980 at the out­set of what would be a bru­tal 12-year civ­il war. Pete was raised in New York, as his strong Brook­lyn accent con­firms. There, he fin­ished high school, stud­ied at Hof­s­tra Uni­ver­si­ty for a year, and went on to work as an auto body tech­ni­cian for near­ly fif­teen years.

“I was a U.S. res­i­dent alien for over 20 years,” he tells me. “That makes me almost a cit­i­zen. I just didn’t put in the paper­work. I was work­ing on the paper­work, but then all of this caught up to me.” 10 years ago, after 27 years in the Unit­ed States and sev­er­al run-ins with the law, Pete was deport­ed.

Today, he works in a call cen­ter in San Sal­vador, train­ing agents to hone their Eng­lish-lan­guage skills in order to pass as U.S.-based work­ers pro­vid­ing cus­tomer ser­vice and tech­ni­cal sup­port for com­pa­nies includ­ing Metlife, Canon, and Expe­dia. For Pete and the count­less oth­er depor­tees that swell the ranks of this grow­ing indus­try, the work comes nat­u­ral­ly. “Back in the States, we’re natives,” he explains. “I could recite you the whole Pledge of Alle­giance! You know, I can’t recite you the [Sal­vado­ran] Pledge of Alle­giance or the Sal­vado­ran anthem. I can’t do that, nev­er. Most of the words, I can’t even say them!”

As research for my mas­ters’ the­sis at El Salvador’s Cen­tral Amer­i­ca Uni­ver­si­ty (UCA), I inter­viewed 13 indi­vid­u­als who had belonged to the so-called “1.5 gen­er­a­tion” of immi­grants to the Unit­ed States – those who emi­grat­ed as chil­dren and spent their for­ma­tive years there – who, fol­low­ing depor­ta­tion, now work in San Salvador’s bur­geon­ing call cen­ter indus­try. Cer­tain­ly, the plight of depor­tees like Pete points to what Susan Bibler Coutin calls “the irony of deport­ing peo­ple ‘back’ to a place that they are not ful­ly ‘from.’”1 The sub­se­quent inser­tion of these 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees into the out­sourced transna­tion­al call cen­ter indus­try, how­ev­er, points to an even more dis­turb­ing irony.

Much of the con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture on depor­ta­tion uses the metaphor of waste. The­o­rists often cite Nicholas De Genova’s impor­tant work on migrant ille­gal­i­ty and deporta­bil­i­ty, in which migrant labor is termed “dis­pos­able,” or Jock Young’s con­cept of a “bulim­ic soci­ety”, through which depor­tees can be con­sid­ered the dis­cards of empire.2 Nev­er­the­less, the con­struc­tion of a sig­nif­i­cant class of indi­vid­u­als deport­ed from the U.S. work­ing as call cen­ter agents through­out Mesoamer­i­ca sug­gests a dif­fer­ent anal­o­gy: recy­cling. In oth­er words, the indus­try has found a par­tic­u­lar use for these dis­card­ed work­ers, whose cul­tur­al skills, cap­i­tal, and very iden­ti­ties are repur­posed and deployed to serve a crit­i­cal func­tion in the glob­al econ­o­my.

This dynam­ic also forces us to re-exam­ine cer­tain pre­vail­ing under­stand­ings of labor migra­tion, mobil­i­ty, and exploita­tion. In her analy­sis of migrant Fil­ip­ina domes­tic work­ers, for exam­ple, Rha­cel Par­reñas doc­u­ments the “cre­ation of a divi­sion of repro­duc­tive labor in the glob­al econ­o­my” that aris­es from “the demand for low-wage ser­vice work­ers in post-indus­tri­al nations.”3 In this sys­tem, migrant women’s low-waged domes­tic work allows for class-priv­i­leged women in receiv­ing coun­tries to engage in pro­duc­tive labor out­side the home; these migrant women, in turn, hire poor women in their coun­try of ori­gin to per­form domes­tic labor for them at an even low­er cost in an “inter­na­tion­al trans­fer of care­tak­ing.”4 The neolib­er­al cycle that I describe, how­ev­er, points to a dis­turb­ing new facet of this inter­na­tion­al divi­sion of labor in which migrants – in this case, most­ly 1.5 gen­er­a­tion men – are forcibly relo­cat­ed to their coun­try of birth to per­form ser­vice work for the post-indus­tri­al nation from which they were expelled, in sig­nif­i­cant­ly poor­er con­di­tions.

In this cycle of migra­tion, depor­ta­tion, and out­sourc­ing, then, the enter­prise of depor­ta­tion takes on a more sin­is­ter tone, as open coer­cion is com­bined with pre­car­i­ous forms of wage labor. It offers a sin­gu­lar exam­ple of the cyn­i­cal and cru­el effi­cien­cy of glob­al neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism. The rise of the call cen­ter indus­try in coun­tries like Mex­i­co, Hon­duras, Guatemala, and El Sal­vador sig­nals the reimag­in­ing of mass depor­ta­tion as out­sourc­ing, in which not only are jobs off­shored, but so are the work­ers that fill them, whose years of liv­ing and work­ing in the Unit­ed States have made them unique­ly qual­i­fied for the work.

The Neoliberal Cycle

I take the term “neolib­er­al cycle” from Tanya Golash-Boza, who argues that the U.S. pol­i­cy of mass depor­ta­tion has at its core the goal of expelling sur­plus labor to the glob­al periph­ery, while also exer­cis­ing greater con­trol over domes­tic work­ers.5 In inter­views with Guatemalan, Domini­can, Jamaican, and Brazil­ian depor­tees, Golash-Boza notes that receiv­ing nations find myr­i­ad “prac­ti­cal and rhetor­i­cal uses” for the deport­ed in the project of sus­tain­ing secu­ri­tized neolib­er­al­ism. In El Sal­vador, the sur­plus labor of deport­ed 1.5 gen­er­a­tion U.S. immi­grants is cur­rent­ly being con­vert­ed into low-cost labor for com­pa­nies from Hotels.com to AT&T.

Mass migra­tion from El Sal­vador to the Unit­ed States began dur­ing the country’s bloody civ­il war (1980–1992) between left­ist guer­ril­la forces and the U.S.-backed right-wing mil­i­tary regime, but in the years fol­low­ing the Peace Accords migra­tion rates actu­al­ly sur­passed those of wartime. Indeed, from 1980–1990, an aver­age 54,156 Sal­vado­rans fled the coun­try each year; between 2000–2010, that fig­ure was 61,942.6 These peace­time migrants were no longer flee­ing polit­i­cal vio­lence, but rather the eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion wrought by an onslaught of neolib­er­al poli­cies of pri­va­ti­za­tion and dereg­u­la­tion encour­aged by the Unit­ed States and its inter­na­tion­al finan­cial appendages and imple­ment­ed by the gov­ern­ing oli­garchic elites.7 In recent years, of course, migrants increas­ing­ly cite gang vio­lence as well as fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion along with eco­nom­ic hard­ship as the cause for their flight.8

This mass migra­tion is not sim­ply a by-prod­uct of neolib­er­al­iza­tion in El Sal­vador, but in fact is cen­tral to sus­tain­ing the mod­el. Post-war migra­tion has been char­ac­ter­ized as an “escape valve” for the unsus­tain­able pres­sures of mass pri­va­ti­za­tion, lib­er­al­iza­tion, dol­lar­iza­tion and free trade.9 Indeed, remit­tances from migrants in the Unit­ed States con­sti­tute a prin­ci­pal pil­lar of the Sal­vado­ran econ­o­my. Bibler Coutin writes that “remit­tance income less­ened the impact of struc­tur­al adjust­ment pro­grams imple­ment­ed dur­ing the 1990s.”10 The role of remit­tances only grew in the sub­se­quent years as the neolib­er­al mod­el was con­sol­i­dat­ed; in 2006, the year that the Cen­tral Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (CAFTA) was imple­ment­ed, remit­tances to El Sal­vador grew by 24.6%.11 In 2016, remit­tances rep­re­sent­ed over 16% of the nation­al GDP.12

In the Unit­ed States, the same neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic process­es that fed mass migra­tion from El Sal­vador con­verged with the bur­geon­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty state to give rise to the pol­i­cy of mass depor­ta­tion, first under the guise of the War on Drugs and sub­se­quent­ly under the War on Ter­ror. The 1996 Ille­gal Immi­gra­tion Reform and Immi­grant Respon­si­bil­i­ty Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiter­ror­ism and Effec­tive Death Penal­ty Act broad­ened the def­i­n­i­tion of crimes sub­ject to depor­ta­tion, lim­it­ed judi­cial dis­cre­tion, expand­ed the use of manda­to­ry deten­tion, and accel­er­at­ed depor­ta­tion process­es, sud­den­ly ren­der­ing thou­sands of migrants vul­ner­a­ble to depor­ta­tion.13 After 9/11, the USA Patri­ot Act increased the use of bor­der patrols by 300 per­cent, and in 2002, the Home­land Secu­ri­ty Act moved depor­ta­tion process­es over to the new­ly-formed Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty; the Bor­der Patrol’s mis­sion was also mod­i­fied to pro­tect the Unit­ed States from “ter­ror­ists.”14 U.S. immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy had become ful­ly secu­ri­tized.

At the same time, the pri­va­ti­za­tion of immi­grant deten­tion gave rise to a lucra­tive indus­try, inspir­ing pri­vate prison com­pa­nies like Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tions of Amer­i­ca (recent­ly rebrand­ed as “Core­Civic”) and Geo Group to lob­by hard for some of the nation’s most appalling­ly racist anti-immi­grant leg­is­la­tion, includ­ing Arizona’s noto­ri­ous SB 1070.15 At the nation­al lev­el, fed­er­al pro­grams like E-ver­i­fy and Secure Com­mu­ni­ties (rebrand­ed by Oba­ma as the “Pri­or­i­ty Enforce­ment Pro­gram”) have turned employ­ers and police, respec­tive­ly, into immi­gra­tion enforcers, ren­der­ing even casu­al law enforce­ment encoun­ters into dev­as­tat­ing events.16

These devel­op­ments have made migrant labor all the more vul­ner­a­ble, pre­car­i­ous, and exploitable. Like mass migra­tion, then, mass depor­ta­tion and the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of migrants in the Unit­ed States is cen­tral to sus­tain­ing the con­tem­po­rary neolib­er­al regime.

It was this col­lu­sion between local law enforce­ment and fed­er­al immi­gra­tion author­i­ties that ulti­mate­ly ensnared Pete, and many more. Raúl, for exam­ple, anoth­er call cen­ter work­er in San Sal­vador, was six years old when he left for the Unit­ed States with his moth­er in 1986. Raúl and his fam­i­ly had received asy­lum, but in the year 2000, he “fell out of sta­tus.” As he explains, “It was after Sep­tem­ber 11, that’s when it kind of, the immi­gra­tion busi­ness boomed. So there was a lot of attor­neys that got into it but [who] real­ly didn’t know what they were doing, so they gave me a lot of bad advice, unfor­tu­nate­ly. None of them real­ly want­ed to help me, but I could have got­ten legal sta­tus. So I stayed with­out legal sta­tus ‘til about 2006, and unfor­tu­nate­ly I got arrest­ed for a domes­tic dis­pute. Once in coun­ty jail, ICE came through.” In 2011, at the age of thir­ty-one, Raúl was deport­ed to El Sal­vador.

Kar­la, who also works as a call cen­ter agent, left for New York as a six-year-old in 1995. She was deport­ed in 2009 at the age of nine­teen after get­ting picked up by the police for a fight stem­ming from an abu­sive rela­tion­ship with her ex-boyfriend. The charges were dis­missed, but she was released direct­ly into immi­gra­tion cus­tody.

As a result of this juridi­cal evo­lu­tion, depor­ta­tions have sky­rock­et­ed. In 1995, 50,924 non-cit­i­zens were “removed” from the Unit­ed States;17 in 2010, that num­ber rose to 392,904, and reached a record high in 2013 with 435,498 removals.18 El Sal­vador, a coun­try the size of Mary­land with a pop­u­la­tion of some six mil­lion peo­ple, has borne a dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact of these depor­ta­tions: in 1995, 1,932 Sal­vado­rans were deport­ed from the US; that fig­ure rose to 19,809 in 2010 and reached a record high of 27,108 in 2014.19  

For the 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tee call cen­ter agents whom I spoke with, the return to El Sal­vador was usu­al­ly trau­mat­ic. TJ left at the age of five in 1986 and accept­ed vol­un­tary depor­ta­tion 20 years lat­er, in 2006, for gang-relat­ed offens­es: “I thought that since I lived there all my life, I was already an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. So I mean, it was just like I didn’t real­ly even think that I was from anoth­er coun­try because I grew up know­ing every­thing over there. […] I grew up there, went to ele­men­tary school and did every­thing, I mean it felt like I lived there my whole life. I was like, ‘any­thing I do is like, where are they going to send me, if I’m from right here?’”

Upon arriv­ing in El Sal­vador, TJ describes feel­ing over­whelmed, for­eign, and dis­ori­ent­ed. “I was just blown away,” he says. “It’s just like com­ing from this world, and then com­ing to anoth­er world. It’s like two dif­fer­ent dimen­sions, like I actu­al­ly stepped back in time.”

Raul, for his part, found him­self resort­ing to Hol­ly­wood clichés to make sense of the unfa­mil­iar land­scape: “Hon­est­ly? The first thing that came to my mind when I was in the van, you know I’m going towards my aunt’s house because my aunt picked me up. You know how when you see in TV, you see movies when they’re like in Africa, or their like in Mid­dle East­ern mar­ket­places?” He laughs. “That’s the first thing that came to my head, that’s the first thing I felt, that I per­ceived, by look­ing at it. It was quite dif­fer­ent. Shock­ing.”

Abrupt­ly wrest­ed from their com­mu­ni­ties and plant­ed in an alien envi­ron­ment, 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees seek to estab­lish some kind of sta­bil­i­ty. “The first thing I did is start find­ing out about work,” Raúl remem­bers. “I kept hear­ing about call cen­ters. They’re like, ‘Oh, they’re the best pay­ing jobs.’”

The Call Center Industry

Out­sourced gar­ment fac­to­ry sweat­shops have long been the poster-child for cap­i­tal­ist glob­al­iza­tion and its dis­con­tents in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. Ush­ered in by the for­eign pri­vate invest­ment incen­tives enshrined in the struc­tur­al adjust­ments of the 1990s and cement­ed in the 2006 Cen­tral Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (CAFTA), the maquilado­ra mod­el promised eco­nom­ic growth and devel­op­ment, but deliv­ered low-wage, high turnover work with min­i­mal over­sight and max­i­mum exploita­tion of poor young women. Less exam­ined, how­ev­er, is the lat­est labor trend in this race-to-the-bot­tom: call cen­ters.

The call cen­ter indus­try arose in El Sal­vador in the wake of neolib­er­al reforms like the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the nation­al telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­ny and the 1998 Ley de Zonas Fran­cas, which iden­ti­fied for­eign export indus­tries as a nation­al pri­or­i­ty. Sim­i­lar to the gar­ment indus­try, it is a prod­uct of the glob­al frag­men­ta­tion and exter­nal­iza­tion strate­gies led by North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean com­pa­nies seek­ing to low­er pro­duc­tion costs. But unlike maquilas, call cen­ters don’t export mate­r­i­al prod­ucts. Rather, they export human resources.

The Unit­ed States has avid­ly pro­mot­ed the industry’s growth in El Sal­vador, where major­i­ty for­eign-owned cor­po­ra­tions enjoy exemp­tions from income, sales, and munic­i­pal tax­es. Under the bilat­er­al Part­ner­ship For Growth frame­work, USAID and the Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce sup­port nation­al pro­grams like “Improv­ing Access to Employ­ment,” “Supérate,” and “Eng­lish for Work,” which explic­it­ly seek to train young Sal­vado­rans for call-cen­ter labor. In addi­tion, as part of its mis­sion to “adjust work­force train­ing to the demands of the mar­ket,” the Mil­len­ni­um Chal­lenge Cor­po­ra­tion com­pact with El Sal­vador specif­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fies call cen­ters as a strate­gic sec­tor for growth, along with the tex­tile indus­try.20

What’s more, the call-cen­ter indus­try is only like­ly to keep grow­ing. In the grand impe­r­i­al tra­di­tion of CAFTA, the Part­ner­ship for Growth, and the Mil­len­ni­um Chal­lenge Com­pact, the new U.S.-championed Alliance for Pros­per­i­ty in the North­ern Tri­an­gle of Cen­tral Amer­i­ca rep­re­sents yet anoth­er vehi­cle for impos­ing mil­i­ta­riza­tion, extrac­tivism, and neolib­er­al­iza­tion on the region, and has as its cen­tral focus the improve­ment of the “invest­ment cli­mate” for pri­vate for­eign cor­po­ra­tions and “clos­ing the gap” between labor sup­ply and busi­ness demands – in oth­er words, the train­ing of more call cen­ter work­ers.21 Cur­rent­ly, the Sal­vado­ran gov­ern­ment esti­mates that over 70 call cen­ters oper­ate in the coun­try, employ­ing over 20,000 peo­ple.22

But while the Unit­ed States touts call-cen­ter jobs as solu­tions to youth unem­ploy­ment and mass migra­tion, the real­i­ty is that like the maquila sec­tor, the off­shored call-cen­ter indus­try con­tributes to an ever more pre­car­i­ous and unequal econ­o­my for work­ers both in El Sal­vador and the Unit­ed States.

For bilin­gual work­ers, the indus­try offers rel­a­tive­ly advan­ta­geous con­di­tions, with start­ing salaries of around $600 per month ver­sus the mis­er­able $295 in the maquilas.23 Nev­er­the­less, call cen­ters fol­low the same maquila labor mod­el: con­stant sur­veil­lance, lim­it­ed bath­room access, demand­ing quo­tas, min­i­mal break time, scarce pro­mo­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties, and strict anti-union prac­tices. Due to its accel­er­at­ed pace and rig­or­ous sched­ule, as in the maquila sec­tor, the indus­try prefers to recruit young peo­ple.24 Ten-hour shifts are the norm. Agents are required to stick to a script on mon­i­tored calls with cus­tomers who gen­er­al­ly irri­ta­ble, frus­trat­ed, and even abu­sive, gen­er­at­ing seri­ous lev­els of stress.25 The result is, pre­dictably, high employ­ee burnout and turnover, and neg­li­gi­ble union­iza­tion.

Lit­er­a­ture on the grow­ing transna­tion­al call cen­ter indus­try tends to sit­u­ate it in a glob­al­ized neolib­er­al mod­el of post-Fordist pro­duc­tion.26 Call cen­ters and their work­ers are at the van­guard of new meth­ods of pro­duc­tion, accu­mu­la­tion, and labor extrac­tion. These jobs are par­tic­u­lar­ly unsta­ble, as well as flex­i­ble, demand­ing mul­ti­ple skills. Jamie Wood­cock writes: “Although there remains a man­u­al com­po­nent to the labour process in the call cen­tre – the demand to be at the desk for a set amount of time, the phys­i­cal inter­ac­tion with the com­put­er and the head­set, the ver­bal­i­sa­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at a par­tic­u­lar pitch, tone and speed – the key ele­ment is men­tal labour.”27 This labor can be also char­ac­ter­ized as imma­te­r­i­al labor, that of pro­duc­ing affect, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and prob­lem-solv­ing.28

As Mir­chan­dani and Poster observe, “nation­al fea­tures of speech – accent, voice, word choice, etc. – become key ingre­di­ents” of these vir­tu­al cross-bor­der exchanges with North Amer­i­can cus­tomers, mak­ing “authen­tic­i­ty work” a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of transna­tion­al ser­vice labor.29 Agents are engaged in a “per­ma­nent per­for­mance” for both their cus­tomers and super­vi­sors.30 Due to their accu­mu­la­tion of skills and knowl­edge grow­ing up in the Unit­ed States, 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees are there­fore unique­ly posi­tioned with­in the Sal­vado­ran labor mar­ket to excel at the job.

Recycling Deportee Labor

Here, the neolib­er­al cycle comes full cir­cle. In addi­tion to attract­ing uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents and frus­trat­ed recent grad­u­ates, El Salvador’s call cen­ters have been a cen­tral eco­nom­ic and social hub for the country’s bal­loon­ing depor­tee pop­u­la­tion since their incep­tion. Indeed, call cen­ters are some of the only work­places that will open their doors to depor­tees, who are com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with gang activ­i­ty and face wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion. In the call cen­ters, 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees find an oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­mer­cial­ize their lin­guis­tic and cul­tur­al skills in a space unique­ly tol­er­ant of their high­ly stig­ma­tized tat­toos, shaved heads, bag­gy clothes and, in many cas­es, crim­i­nal records.

Today, the fig­ure of the depor­tee call cen­ter work­er has joined that of the depor­tee gang mem­ber in the hall of Sal­vado­ran stereo­types. “The first thing they say about call cen­ter jobs,” says TJ, “[when] you tell them, ‘Oh, I work in a call cen­ter’, [is,] ‘Oh, you’re deport­ed.’”

Despite their stig­ma, 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees make for excep­tion­al call cen­ter agents, and the indus­try knows it. Edgar lived in the Unit­ed States for 16 years, from the ages of 10 to 26: “It was real­ly easy, ‘cause like I said, I’m very Amer­i­can­ized with sports and stuff like that. So that’s why I think that the peo­ple here in El Sal­vador, they have a prob­lem once they learn their Eng­lish here and they go ahead and try to speak to a per­son in the Unit­ed States. Cuz you know, ‘How’s the weath­er? Did the Rock­ets win? How’d the Dol­phins do? Did you see that game yes­ter­day?’ Stuff like that, these peo­ple here, they don’t know noth­ing about [it].”

Mar­vin, who spent six years of his ado­les­cence and ear­ly adult­hood in Cal­i­for­nia, tells me, “I have nev­er worked here. I don’t know how these peo­ple – I mean hon­est­ly, this is my peo­ple, but I don’t know how they are; I don’t know what type of cus­tomers they are. I know the States. I was there, I worked there, I know what they want.”

“It was just like any oth­er day for me,” says TJ of his first expe­ri­ence as a call cen­ter agent. “I can social­ize about any­thing over there […] Like in the East Coast, you got the four sea­sons: ‘Hey, it’s spring time. I love it when the cher­ries blos­som and every­thing, it looks real col­or­ful.’ Or when it snows, or autumn. I can actu­al­ly talk about the sports, or foot­ball, base­ball, Nascar. A lot of things like that that I was actu­al­ly into, a lot of peo­ple that I talk to on the phone are into the same thing, so it was real easy.”

For many 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees, the call cen­ter serves as a refuge from the for­eign­ness of Sal­vado­ran cul­ture, a wel­come oppor­tu­ni­ty to enter a famil­iar reg­is­ter and chat in Eng­lish with both their clients and col­leagues. But the iron­ic inequities of their off­shored labor are not lost on them.

James, who was tak­en to the Unit­ed States as a six-year-old in 1993 and deport­ed in 2010 after being appre­hend­ed for dri­ving with­out a license, points out: “Over there you get paid, what, like $300, $400 a week? Or maybe $500. Here, you make that in months.”

Raúl reflects: “Com­ing from the States, I didn’t live well, but I lived com­fort­ably. So like here, I don’t make enough mon­ey. I feel like I’m get­ting gypped.” Raúl shakes his head, “The work we do here, the pay is not enough, and the pres­sure they put on you is enor­mous. Plus, the long hours of work. I mean, com­ing from the States where, 8-hour shifts, that’s nor­mal. Or when I worked in con­struc­tion, if I did 12 [hours] it was because I want­ed to, it wasn’t because I was pushed to do it. But here you feel that pres­sure that they’re on you, like you have to do these 10 hours a day.”

Call cen­ter labor is emo­tion­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly exhaust­ing work, and very few man­age to make a career out of it. The com­pa­nies adver­tise agent posi­tions as tem­po­rary jobs for stu­dents on the way toward big­ger, bet­ter things; a recent ad for Sykes declares: “Great envi­ron­ment, flex­i­ble sched­ules and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work and study at the same time is for you! Apply Now: Our reser­va­tion team is wait­ing for you with a $300 wel­come bonus!” In real­i­ty, most uni­ver­si­ty-grad­u­ate pro­fes­sion­als in El Sal­vador will have a hard time find­ing salaries in their field that com­pare to what the call cen­ters are able to offer. For peo­ple who have been deport­ed from the Unit­ed States, the options are all the more lim­it­ed.

Depor­tees often feel trapped, essen­tial­ly interned in the for­eign coun­try of their birth. The call cen­ters take max­i­mum advan­tage of these anguish­ing restric­tions imposed on depor­tees’ mobil­i­ty. Many car­ry their time like a prison sen­tence, wait­ing to be legal­ly eli­gi­ble to apply for re-entry – itself a high­ly unlike­ly prospect. In the mean­time, call cen­ters have emerged to cap­i­tal­ize on their cap­tiv­i­ty.

“My father, he’s also deport­ed, he tried to go back twice,” says Karen. “This last time they gave him 25 years with­out enter­ing the coun­try, basi­cal­ly the rest of his life, for my father’s 44. So I don’t want that to hap­pen to me, I want to make sure I have those doors open. So for now I won’t be leav­ing for the States ille­gal­ly, I’ll just wait until the legal paper­work is done and I’ll just pray to God that, you know, it all comes out. But in the mean­while, while I’m here, I don’t wan­na just sit here in a call cen­ter all my life.”

Raúl, in turn, expressed a sense of paral­y­sis: “I have thought about leav­ing the coun­try. But what am I gonna go do some­where else in anoth­er coun­try? […] My old­est is 13, you know, he can spon­sor me back [to the Unit­ed States] but he’s got­ta be 21 […] we’re talk­ing about some­where around 13 years before I can con­sid­er going back legal­ly. I have con­sid­ered going back ille­gal­ly, but I’m run­ning a risk of going to prison. And I’m gonna tell you some­thing, I have a lot of respect for the peo­ple who trav­el through Mex­i­co. Because when I did it back in 2009, when I went back, it was awful, it was hor­ri­ble. […] But I don’t know, I’m con­fused, because I’m stuck. My lev­el of edu­ca­tion is not high […] So, I don’t feel like I could ever do some­thing in this coun­try unless I opened up my own busi­ness, but unfor­tu­nate­ly I don’t have the funds to open up my own busi­ness. And I real­ly don’t wan­na work the rest of my life in a call cen­ter.”

The Call Center Diaspora

While call cen­ters offers much-need­ed income and social sup­port for a pop­u­la­tion that has been vio­lent­ly uproot­ed and thrust into an unfa­mil­iar and often dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry, they do lit­tle to inte­grate these indi­vid­u­als into Sal­vado­ran soci­ety. In fact, call cen­ter work appears to help main­tain and rein­force depor­tees’ iden­ti­fi­ca­tions with the Unit­ed States, and con­sol­i­date their lived and per­ceived oth­er­ness. The dis­tinc­tion is such that 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees reg­u­lar­ly describe them­selves as being “from” the Unit­ed States, while fre­quent­ly refer­ring to their co-work­ers who have nev­er lived in the Unit­ed States as “natives.”

After ten years liv­ing and work­ing in El Sal­vador, Pete admits: “I only hang out with my girl­friend, that’s the only native that I real­ly hang out with. […] I don’t go out with every­body else, just depor­tees.” For Pete, the cul­ture of his “native” peers is unfa­mil­iar, even hos­tile. “I don’t like the way they address each oth­er. Most of the time, I don’t under­stand what they’re say­ing,” he laughs rue­ful­ly. “My Span­ish is real­ly messed up.”

Call cen­ters pro­mote an Eng­lish-only lan­guage envi­ron­ment, and agents spend ten hours a day speak­ing with North Amer­i­can clients in their best, “accent-neu­tral” Eng­lish. Many 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees spend most of their (lim­it­ed) free time social­iz­ing with fel­low depor­tees, and find lit­tle incen­tive or oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op their Span­ish flu­en­cy.

Raúl has lived in El Sal­vador now for four years, and he has also strug­gled to make “native” friends: “I think all my friends are from the States. […] When I got here, Span­ish was rough, because I was more used to speak­ing Eng­lish all the time. And ‘til now, still, here after four years, I’m more com­fort­able talk­ing in Eng­lish than in Span­ish. So I tend to hang it with more peo­ple that actu­al­ly speak Eng­lish.”

Karla’s expe­ri­ence has been sim­i­lar: “I do kind of pre­fer to hang out with peo­ple from the States, just ‘cause you always miss it,” she tells me. “Who­ev­er tells you they’re here and they’re enjoy­ing it – I mean you can enjoy your stay, but [that] they’re enjoy­ing it [and] they don’t miss the States – is lying. We all miss the States. And so, to me, hang­ing out with peo­ple that are from over there, it helps me get a piece of what I’m miss­ing, you know? And you kind of under­stand each oth­er, you know, you under­stand the slang, you under­stand the stuff you went through up there, it’s like a very dif­fer­ent con­nec­tion from the peo­ple down here. Peo­ple down here, even though I love my friends a lot, they could nev­er under­stand what I went through up there. Where­as if I’m here and I talk to peo­ple about high school trends, you know, about what we did in high school or in ele­men­tary school, TV shows that we watched over there, a lot of that stuff you can only talk [about] with peo­ple that are from over there. And that’s what a lot of peo­ple don’t under­stand.”

Hav­ing grown up as ful­ly accul­tur­at­ed U.S. Lati­nos, 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees bol­ster Daniel Kanstroom’s claim that U.S. pol­i­cy of mass depor­ta­tion is cre­at­ing a “new Amer­i­can dias­po­ra.”31 Their years of U.S. pub­lic edu­ca­tion, civic for­ma­tion, cul­tur­al con­sump­tion, and labor fos­tered an expe­ri­ence of what Bibler Coutin calls an “approx­i­ma­tion of cit­i­zen­ship” that, while pro­vid­ing a strong sense of belong­ing and par­tic­i­pa­tion, was nev­er for­mal­ized into offi­cial sta­tus.32 The lan­guage skills and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties cul­ti­vat­ed by 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees are not enough to con­sti­tute for­mal cit­i­zen­ship in the eyes of the State, but just enough to make a con­vinc­ing call cen­ter agent.

Richard accept­ed vol­un­tary depor­ta­tion in 2002 after 26 years in the Unit­ed States; his Eng­lish, unsur­pris­ing­ly, is impec­ca­ble. Cus­tomers, he says, “would always tell me that they were pret­ty upset about the ser­vice they had received from the Philip­pines, or that they were tired of talk­ing to peo­ple from India. Most of the time, they would tell [me] ‘Oh, it’s good to speak to an Amer­i­can.’”

Uncertain Futures

In the lat­ter years of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, there were signs this land­scape was shift­ing. Rather than wait­ing to cap­ture migrants with­in U.S. bor­ders, in 2014 the Unit­ed States began to out­source its enforce­ment to Mex­i­co. Plan Fron­tera Sur, as the pro­gram is called, has pushed for­ward the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Mexico’s south­ern bor­der with Guatemala, as well as the tra­di­tion­al migrant cor­ri­dors like the route along the infa­mous car­go train known as “la Bes­tia”, mak­ing the jour­ney expo­nen­tial­ly more dan­ger­ous for already vul­ner­a­ble Cen­tral Amer­i­can migrants seek­ing to evade deten­tion by noto­ri­ous­ly cor­rupt Mex­i­can author­i­ties.33 Abrupt­ly, U.S. depor­ta­tions to El Sal­vador dropped sig­nif­i­cant­ly, falling to 21,920 in 2015, while depor­ta­tions from Mex­i­co shot up to unprece­dent­ed lev­els, from 8,944 in 2011, to 22,137 in 2014.34 As of 2015, Mex­i­co now deports more Cen­tral Amer­i­cans than the Unit­ed States.35

Under Oba­ma, the Unit­ed States also began pro­mot­ing bor­der mil­i­ta­riza­tion through­out Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, ramp­ing up assis­tance for bor­der secu­ri­ty task forces in the North­ern Tri­an­gle under the guise of fight­ing orga­nized crime.36 In 2016, hun­dreds of Sal­vado­rans were denied entry to or deport­ed from Guatemala, despite an agree­ment allow­ing Cen­tral Amer­i­cans to trav­el freely between the two coun­tries.37

As a result, 1.5 gen­er­a­tion immi­grants to the Unit­ed States are now out­num­bered in a depor­tee pop­u­la­tion increas­ing­ly dom­i­nat­ed by women and chil­dren appre­hend­ed upon or well before reach­ing the U.S.-Mexico bor­der.38 Accord­ing­ly, the call cen­ter indus­try is evolv­ing. Many com­pa­nies are impos­ing stricter hir­ing poli­cies against those with a U.S. crim­i­nal record, and pri­vate “Eng­lish for Call Cen­ters” acad­e­mies are sprout­ing across the cap­i­tal, hop­ing to cash in on the train­ing of a domes­tic work­force that need not rely on stig­ma­tized depor­tee labor. As I fin­ished my research in ear­ly 2016, I won­dered what the new role of 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees would be in the neolib­er­al cycle: could it be that transna­tion­al cap­i­tal will soon have no more use for their recy­cled labor?  

If the first year of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is any indi­ca­tion, it’s unlike­ly. Today, 1.5 gen­er­a­tion migrants and their fam­i­lies are in the crosshairs like nev­er before.39 It took Oba­ma eight years to deport 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple – a stag­ger­ing, dis­turb­ing achieve­ment – but Trump’s orders have made mil­lions more vul­ner­a­ble. Obama’s Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA) exec­u­tive order is being phased out, and the fate of near­ly 800,000 1.5 gen­er­a­tion immi­grants is now in the hands of an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dys­func­tion­al Con­gress. El Sal­vador may well need to brace itself for a renewed influx of exiled dias­poric sub­jects.

And despite Trump’s cam­paign-trail iso­la­tion­ism, the Unit­ed States appears set to con­tin­ue its impe­r­i­al path in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and beyond. As head of SOUTHCOM, Gen­er­al Kel­ly, who briefly head­ed the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty and now advis­es the Pres­i­dent as White House Chief of Staff, is an avid pro­po­nent of the Alliance for Pros­per­i­ty, which envi­sions Cen­tral Amer­i­ca as a logis­ti­cal cor­ri­dor for U.S. com­merce, tra­versed by mas­sive high­ways, nat­ur­al gas pipelines, and mil­i­ta­rized bor­ders, where young peo­ple sweat away the hours in gar­ment fac­to­ries, sug­ar­cane fields, and, of course, call cen­ters.40

Neolib­er­al schemes like the Alliance for Pros­per­i­ty pur­port to seek to help pro­vide alter­na­tives to mass migra­tion from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, but the pro­grams that they impose offer no such thing. Quite the oppo­site: they con­tribute direct­ly to the con­di­tions for mass migra­tion, then ban­ish those migrants back to the pre­car­i­ous economies that they cre­at­ed. And U.S. com­pa­nies, from the pri­vate prison cor­po­ra­tions and the bor­der secu­ri­ty firms to the banks, web­sites, and tele­coms that out­source to the call cen­ters, are reap­ing the rewards.  

This neolib­er­al recy­cling, how­ev­er prof­itable, comes at the expense of count­less 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tees, who spend their days in El Sal­vador under flu­o­res­cent lights, strapped into a head­set, sit­ting in front of a screen, pro­vid­ing first world ser­vice at third world rates to the com­mu­ni­ty from which they were ruth­less­ly expelled.

As the Trump admin­is­tra­tion moves against vital tem­po­rary pro­tec­tions like DACA and TPS, migrant jus­tice activists have insist­ed on main­tain­ing an eman­ci­pa­to­ry hori­zon that envi­sions an end to depor­ta­tion, migrant deten­tion, and bor­der mil­i­ta­riza­tion alto­geth­er. The fate of 1.5 gen­er­a­tion depor­tee call cen­ter work­ers in El Sal­vador sug­gests, how­ev­er, that we can­not address the injus­tices of the U.S. immi­gra­tion sys­tem with­out also under­stand­ing its crit­i­cal role in repro­duc­ing and advanc­ing mil­i­ta­rized transna­tion­al cap­i­tal­ism. The strug­gle for migrant jus­tice is also the strug­gle against impe­ri­al­ism and neolib­er­al­ism, and it is glob­al.


  1. Susan Bidler Coutin, Nation of Emi­grants: Shift­ing Bound­aries of Cit­i­zen­ship in El Sal­vador and the Unit­ed States (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007). 

  2. Nicholas De Gen­o­va, “Migrant ‘Ille­gal­i­ty’ and Deporta­bil­i­ty in Every­day Life,” Annu­al Review of Anthro­pol­o­gy 31 (2002): 419–47.; Jock Young, “Can­ni­bal­ism and Bulim­ia: Pat­terns of Social Con­trol in Late Moder­ni­ty,” The­o­ret­i­cal Crim­i­nol­o­gy 4, no. 3 (2007): 387–407. 

  3. Rha­cel Par­reñas, “Migrant Fil­ip­ina Domes­tic Work­ers and the Inter­na­tion­al Divi­sion of Repro­duc­tive Labor,” Gen­der and Soci­ety 14, no. 4 (2000): 560–81. 

  4. Ibid., 561. 

  5. Tanya M. Golash-Boza, Deport­ed: Immi­grant Polic­ing, Dis­pos­able Labor and Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism (New York: New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015). 

  6. PNUD [Pro­gra­ma de Naciones Unidas de Desar­rol­lo] (2010). Informe sobre Desar­rol­lo Humano El Sal­vador 2010: De la pobreza y el con­sum­is­mo al bien­es­tar de la gente. Prop­ues­tas para un nue­vo mod­e­lo de desar­rol­lo. San Sal­vador: PNUD. 

  7. Lau­ra Ruiz Esco­bar, El Sal­vador 1989-2009: Estu­dios sobre migra­ciones y sal­vadoreños en los Esta­dos Unidos des­de las cat­e­gorías de Segun­do Montes (San Sal­vador: PNUD/UCA, 2010). 

  8. Eliz­a­beth Kennedy, “No Child­hood Here: Why Cen­tral Amer­i­can Chil­dren Are Flee­ing Their Homes,” The Amer­i­can Immi­gra­tion Coun­cil, 2014. 

  9. William I. Robin­son “Latin Amer­i­ca in the New Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism.” NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as 45, no. 2 (2012): 13–18. 

  10. Coutin, Nation of Emi­grants, 124. 

  11. Glen­da Gal­lar­do, “Migración, desar­rol­lo human, y ciu­dadanía,” Pro­gra­ma de las Naciones Unidas para el Desar­rol­lo (PNUD) Hon­duras, 2009. 

  12. Redac­ción, “Reme­sas envi­adas a El Sal­vador en 2016 son las may­ores de los últi­mos 6 años,” La Pren­sa Grá­fi­ca, Sep­tem­ber 21, 2016. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Todd Miller, Bor­der Patrol Nation (San Fran­cis­co: City Light Books, 2014). 

  15. Nation­al Immi­gra­tion Forum, The Math of Immi­gra­tion Deten­tion: Run­away Costs For Immi­gra­tion Deten­tion to Not Add Up to Sen­si­ble Poli­cies, 2013. 

  16. Eunice Hyun­hye Cho and Rebec­ca Smith, “Work­ers Rights on ICE: How Immi­gra­tion Reform Can Stop Retal­i­a­tion and Advance Labor Rights – Cal­i­for­nia Report,” Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project, Feb­ru­ary 2013. 

  17. Office of Immi­gra­tion Sta­tis­tics, “Year­book of Immi­gra­tion Sta­tis­tics 2005,” US Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, 2005. 

  18. US Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment, “FY 2015 ICE Immi­gra­tion Removals,” US Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, 2015. 

  19. Office of Immi­gra­tion Sta­tis­tics, “Year­book of Immi­gra­tion Sta­tis­tics,” US Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, 2016. 

  20. Sec­re­taría Téc­ni­ca y de Plan­i­fi­cación, “Fomile­nio II. Proyec­tos,” 2014. 

  21. Mer­cedes Gar­cia, “Alliance for Pros­per­i­ty Plan in the North­ern Tri­an­gle: Not a Like­ly Final Solu­tion for the Cen­tral Amer­i­can Migra­tion Cri­sis,” Coun­cil on Hemi­spher­ic Affairs, March 3, 2016. 

  22. Marce­lo Cora­da, “Off­shore Busi­ness Ser­vices is one of the 10 most impor­tant indus­tries at the nation­al lev­el,” PROESA [Organ­is­mo Pro­mo­tor de Exporta­ciones e Inver­siones de El Sal­vador], May 31, 2016. 

  23. Min­is­te­rio de Tra­ba­jo y Pre­ven­ción Social, “Conoce los decre­tos de incre­men­to al salario mín­i­mo,” Decem­ber 23, 2016. 

  24. Rober­to Flo­res, “Los explota­dos de la nue­va indus­tria,” Con­tra­pun­to, June 3, 2012. 

  25. Cecil­ia M. Rivas, “‘El Sal­vador Works’: The Cre­ation and Nego­ti­a­tion of a Nation­al Brand and the Transna­tion­al Imag­i­nary,” in Bor­ders in Ser­vice: Enact­ments of Nation­hood in Transna­tion­al Call Cen­ters, eds. Kiran Mir­chan­dani and Winifred R. Poster (Toron­to: Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press, 2016). 

  26. San­dro Mez­zadra would chal­lenge this glob­al­ized peri­odiza­tion, point­ing to the “mul­ti­level tem­po­ral­i­ties” present in any labor his­to­ry, and insist on the “het­ero­gene­ity of the modes of cap­ture and sub­sump­tion of liv­ing labor” present through­out cap­i­tal­ism. San­dro Mez­zadra, How Many His­to­ries of Labor? Towards a The­o­ry of Post­colo­nial Cap­i­tal­ism,” EIPCP, Jan­u­ary 2012. 

  27. Jamie Wood­cock, Work­ing the Phones: Con­trol and Resis­tance in Call Cen­ters (Lon­don: Plu­to Press, 2017), 52. See also his arti­cle in issue 3 of View­point Mag­a­zine (2013), “Smile Down the Phone: An Attempt at a Work­ers’ Inquiry in a Call Cen­ter.” 

  28. Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri, Mul­ti­tude: War and Democ­ra­cy in the Age of Empire (New York: Pen­guin, 2004). 

  29. Kiran Mir­chan­dani and Winifred R. Poster, eds., Bor­ders in Ser­vice: Enact­ments of Nation­hood in Transna­tion­al Call Cen­tres (Toron­to: Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press, 2016), 9. 

  30. Colec­ti­vo ¿Quién habla?, La lucha con­tra la esclav­i­tud del alma en los call cen­ters. (Buenos Aires: Tin­ta Limón, 2006), 29. 

  31. Daniel Kanstroom, After­math: Depor­ta­tion Law and the New Amer­i­can Dias­po­ra (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012). 

  32. Susan Bidler Coutin, “In the Breach: Cit­i­zen­ship and its Approx­i­ma­tions.” Indi­ana Jour­nal of

    Glob­al Legal Studies 20, no. 1 (2013). 

  33. Ale­jan­dra Castil­lo, “Pro­gra­ma Fron­tera Sur: The Mex­i­can Government’s Fault Immi­gra­tion Pol­i­cy,” Coun­cil of Hemi­spher­ic Affairs, Octo­ber 26, 2016. 

  34. Office of Immi­gra­tion Sta­tis­tics; Jaime Rivas Castil­lo, “Sueños depor­ta­dos: El impacto de las deporta­ciones en los migrantes sal­vadoreños y sus famil­ias,” Uni­ver­si­dad Cen­troamer­i­cana “José Simeón Cañas,” Novem­ber 2014. 

  35. Rodri­go Dominguez Vil­le­gas and Vic­to­ria Rietig, “Migrants Deport­ed from the Unit­ed States and Mex­i­co to the North­ern Tri­an­gle: A Sta­tis­ti­cal and Socioe­co­nom­ic Pro­file,” Migra­tion Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, 2015. 

  36. Adam Isac­son and Sarah Kinosian, “Which Cen­tral Amer­i­can Mil­i­tary and Police Units Get the Most U.S. Aid?” Wash­ing­ton Office on Latin Amer­i­ca (WOLA), April 15, 2016. 

  37. Elsalvador.com, “Nie­gan ingre­so a sal­vadoreños a Guatemala por con­sid­er­ar­los pandilleros,” El Diario de Hoy, July 11, 2016. 

  38. Rivas Castil­lo, “Sueños depor­ta­dos.” 

  39. Ryan Dev­ereaux, “Trump Admin­is­tra­tion Pre­pares to Exe­cute ‘Vicious’ Exec­u­tive Order on Depor­ta­tions,” The Inter­cept, Feb­ru­ary 9, 2017. 

  40. Jon­ah Wal­ters, “Blood on His Hands,” Jacobin, Decem­ber 9, 2016. 

Author of the article

is a writer and researcher based in San Salvador, El Salvador. She graduated from New York University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies and received a Masters in Communications in 2016 from the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (UCA), where she currently teaches research methods. Hilary is a member of the Editorial Board of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), and her writing on the intersections of empire, neoliberalism, and resistance can be found in NACLA, Jacobin Magazine, The Nation, and other publications.