José Balmore Palacios from El Salvador and his H-2 visa.
It’s 4 o'clock in the morning on the El Salvadoran coast, on a beach called "La Libertad.” José Balmore Palacios and two others have been fishing all night. They’ve been productive, but Palacios still decides to go out spearfishing – a risky endeavour that could earn him US$40, his highest earnings of the month.
Two months earlier, Palacios learned that his wife was expecting their first child, so he had to rethink his future. He has always been an entrepreneur, but opportunities for fishermen on the Salvadoran coast are scarce. “There are times when you go out to sea and come back with nothing, and that is something that makes you sad, especially when you have children,” he says.
As his wife’s pregnancy progressed, the tides started to rise unexpectedly, leaving Palacios with no fish and no income. This is why, when his brother called with an opportunity to travel to the United States to work temporarily (and legally) for a U.S. company, he jumped at it.
His brother was talking about the H-2 Visa Program, an initiative by the U.S. Government developed by the USAID Economic Competitiveness Project and implemented by Palladium in El Salvador, which aims to provide legal and temporary job opportunities for Salvadorans in the U.S.
Since October of 2021, the program has opened the doors to temporary jobs for over 4,200 Salvadoran workers with more than 170 American companies. It was through this program that Palacios, along with thousands of other Salvadorans, began the selection process to apply for an available position.
“It’s a process, like climbing up a ladder and only God knows if you will make it to the end,” Palacios describes. “I was so anxious that I didn’t even want to eat anymore – I needed to know if was accepted or not. Until one day, suddenly it happened, a text message, notifying me that my visa was approved and that I was able to travel to the United States.”
From August to October 2022, Palacios processed salmon at the fishing plant of Silver Bay seafoods in Alaska, from cleaning the fish to packing it for export.
Taking Home More than Just Earnings
This labour mobility program provides enormous economic benefits to Salvadoran families, many of whom are low-income. In 2022 alone, it’s estimated that the income generated by more than 4,000 workers participating in the program exceeded US$87 million. Many of the jobs are in fishing, construction, agriculture, gardening, and hotel services.
Workers earn an average salary of $287 dollars per month in El Salvador, but in the U.S., the average is over $4,000.
The program also teaches workers how to invest once they return to El Salvador. This has helped at least 20% of the returning workers to create their own businesses or improve existing enterprises, generating more income, and creating employment opportunities for their communities. Many Salvadoran workers have increased their quality of life, as the savings obtained during their work season allow them to set up or improve their own businesses, pay off debts, buy a house, access loans, and ultimately develop economically while enriching their communities.
"All the activities we ask of Salvadoran workers are carried out in a very professional manner,” shares Jaime Valdez, manager at Adair´s Landscape, one of the American companies employing Salvadoran workers. Although this is a program aimed at benefiting communities and preventing undocumented migration, its benefits also reach the employer companies, helping them to grow and meet their labour needs. “If we hadn’t hired these workers from El Salvador, we would have been at risk of losing contracts and unable to take on some of the biggest contracts that we laid out,” adds Valdez. “Hiring workers from El Salvador really helped us continue to grow in the path that we were envisioning.”
For Leonardo Osorio, human resources manager at SunPro, a construction company that hired more than 25 employees during 2022, this is a program that has gone beyond expectations. “Not only have the workers completed the goals on time, but they have done it ahead of schedule. It has been a complete success in terms of the goals, which they have exceeded.”
Once back in El Salvador. Palacio wants to remain close to the sea. “I have always liked anything related to the sea. Now that I am back in my country, I’m putting my efforts into a seafood business. I’m also learning English and waiting for the next opportunity to go back to work legally for a season in the U.S.”
“As a person, and especially as a father, you can never give up, and opportunities sooner or later in life they come along,” he says while holding his newborn daughter, whose future is now brighter than it was before.
“The H-2B visa program’s success shows how we can help businesses grow while also helping thousands of Salvadorans find life-changing opportunities,” says USAID Administrator Samantha Power.
Learn more or watch “A Voyage of Opportunities,” a documentary about Palacio’s story produced by USAID El Salvador with support from Palladium. Special thanks to Marielos Romero, Camila Flores, Claudia Pendle, and Luis Soto for their contributions. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.