The Repatriation Process in El Salvador and Arguments of Relocation in U.S. Immigration Hearings



The purpose of this article is examine the Salvadoran repatriation process and how the government tracks its citizens. In immigration hearings, the U.S. government regularly asserts that respondents who are threatened by gangs can relocate to other areas of El Salvador, obtain jobs, and function normally without detection. However, there are a number of mechanisms the Salvadoran government uses in order to know where its citizens live. Given that the Salvadoran bureaucracy has been compromised by officials under the pay of gangs or been infiltrated by gang members themselves, gangs can use these same databases to track persons of interest and continue to threaten them. It is highly probable, therefore, that no person can prevent gangs finding out where they live in the long term.

Repatriation Process:

When a Salvadoran is repatriated, they fall under local repatriation arrangements signed by both U.S. and Salvadoran government officials designed to strengthen the bilateral framework for the protection of Salvadoran citizens being returned to El Salvador, improve the efficient use of limited resources, and increase coordination during the repatriation process. Before or during the repatriation, the Department of Homeland Security provides El Salvador a list of the persons to be repatriated and pertinent information on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Form I-216. [1]

When individuals who have been convicted of criminal offenses are being repatriated through formal immigration proceedings, information added includes alias, convictions and dates, and time served. In addition, Salvadoran officials have web access to the U.S. Criminal History

Information Sharing (CHIS) which includes biometric information (photographs and fingerprints). DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) stores fingerprints on behalf of DHS component agencies which can be readily accessed by Salvadoran authorities. Note that the CHIS applies to both criminal and non-criminal deportees. In a previous article, we examined the CHIS in more detail [2] .

Therefore, when a repatriated citizen is returned, Salvadoran authorities have a good deal of information on each person. This data is augmented by several necessary disclosures each returnee must do in order to move throughout the country, hold a job, or drive a vehicle.


Salvadoran citizens must have some sort of identification. Recent deportees can carry a U.S. identification such as a state drivers license. Nevertheless, U.S. identification are not accepted for most transactions. The Documento Único de Identidad, or DUI as it is commonly known, is the most widely used form of identification in El Salvador. It is essentially a voter registration card. One needs a Documento Único de Identidad to open a bank account, to apply for a job, and for employment. Proof of address is required—a receipt of telephone, electricity, bank, school or other public or private services. [3]

Driver’s License:

Obtaining a driver’s license in El Salvador is separate from the DUI application. Once approved to drive, the driver is put into a central database to monitor traffic-related activities. This information is shared by the Salvadoran Departments of Interior, Transport and Finance. All drivers are issued a license the size of a credit card with embedded software. Data includes identity, vehicle registration status, type of license, vehicle tax data and history of traffic violations as well as biometric information. [4]


The point of this article is to show that repatriated Salvadoran citizens are effectively tracked by their government from documents and CHIS data given to it by U.S. authorities, to registering for national identification and driver licensure. At each point, a residential address must be given. This information is stored by Salvadoran authorities which allows them to know the location of each of their citizens.

As noted earlier, during deportation hearings, respondents are regularly asked by the U.S. government about their ability to hide or find employment in other areas of El Salvador and thus avoid gang detection. Unfortunately, Salvadoran law enforcement and government officials operate under the mandate of take a bribe or take a bullet in regard to gangs. This puts good police and government officials in fear of enforcing the law and corrupt ones with increased power that comes from association with the gangs. Gangs can co-opt government or law enforcement officials to obtain addresses or other information from persons of interest from government databases. There are also gang members that are members of the security forces and other government agencies that can compromise these databases.

This leaves repatriated Salvadorans who fear gangs having to drop out of society in order to stay safe—meaning having no government identification, the ability to obtain good paying work, operate a motor vehicle, or access other essential public services. Thus, for those repatriated Salvadorans who want to reintegrate into society and lead normal lives, they leave themselves open to detection from the same gangs they fear.


[1] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Detainee Transfers,” December 2016, accessed at:

[2] Robert Kirkland and Duncan Breda, “The U.S. Criminal History Information Sharing Program and El Salvador’s Decree 717,” May 30, 2018, accessed at:

[3] DUI El Salvador,” Government of El Salvador, Accessed at:

[4] El Salvador’s Smart Driver’s License and Vehicle Registration Card,” Genmalto Corporation, Accessed at:

About The Author

Robert Kirkland is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and operational Latin American Foreign Area Officer. He has a B.S. from the United States Military Academy, West Point and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Pittsburgh. He also has a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He also helps guide students in Service Academy admissions as well as ROTC scholarships . He has provided expert testimony on drug cartel and gang violence in Mexico and Central America since his retirement from the Army in 2014. He can be reached at info@ or at his website .