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story.lead_photo.caption Members of the media take photos of the grave of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, after their burial Monday at a cemetery in San Salvador, El Salvador.

The president of El Salvador was addressing the plight of thousands of his fellow citizens who emigrate each year -- including a father and daughter who drowned last week while trying to cross into the United States -- when he did something rare among leaders in the region.

He took responsibility.

"People don't flee their homes because they want to," President Nayib Bukele said Sunday at a news conference in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. "They flee their homes because they feel they have to."

"They fled El Salvador, they fled our country," he declared. "It is our fault."

Bukele's comments were unusual in a region where political leaders have been averse to assuming responsibility for the social and political dynamics that drive migration and have generally paid only lip service to the idea that conditions must improve at home to dissuade people from leaving.

Driven by a combination of factors -- including poverty, unemployment, rampant violence and government corruption -- a steady stream of Salvadorans, along with people from neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, have fled their homes to seek a better life, most of them in the United States. The surge of migrants seeking to cross the southwest U.S. border has been condemned by President Donald Trump, who has sought to restrict immigration, including by those seeking asylum.

The governments of Central America have historically done little to discourage emigration, in part because the flow of citizens abroad has provided their nations with rich economic dividends: Migrants living overseas send home billions of dollars every year, helping to sustain national economies and alleviate poverty.

In 2018, Salvadorans abroad sent nearly $5.5 billion in remittances to El Salvador, equivalent to about 20% of the nation's gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

"In some years, remittances constitute two or three times the country's public social spending," the Migration Policy Institute, a research group in Washington, said last year.

Most Salvadorans who have moved abroad have settled in the United States, with nearly 1.4 million living there -- equivalent to about one-fifth of El Salvador's population, according to the institute.

But migration from El Salvador, and its perils, were highlighted last week with the publication of a photograph of the corpses of the father, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, who were found lying face down in the Rio Grande, between Mexico and the United States.

Their bodies were returned to El Salvador on Sunday.

Bukele's comments Sunday came in response to questions from reporters about the deaths and about what he intended to do to address the economic and security concerns that have pushed so many Salvadorans to leave the country.

"We can send all the blame to any government we like," he said. "We can say President Trump's policies are wrong. We can say Mexico's policies are wrong."

"But," he asked, "what about our blame?"

Bukele acknowledged the two main forces driving so many of his citizens to take their chances on a perilous migration north in search of a better life: economic duress and insecurity.

"They feel it is safer to cross a desert, three frontiers, and all of the things that may happen in the road to the United States because they feel that's more secure than living here," he said. "So we want to make our country safer."

He also vowed to address the poverty and lack of employment opportunities that so many migrants cite as their reason for fleeing.

"We will make a country that is more prosperous and that can provide decent paying jobs for all of our people," he said. "So if people have an opportunity for a decent job, a decent education, a decent health care system and security, I know that forceful migration will be reduced to zero."

But though he focused his comments on El Salvador's responsibility in spurring migrants to leave the country, he did not entirely spare the Trump administration his criticism.

"I think they are approaching this in the wrong way," he said. "History has shown that this will not stop migration."

He encouraged the Trump administration to support his government's efforts to improve El Salvador's economy and security situation. And he set a target of creating 200,000 to 400,000 new jobs, with the help of the United States.

"We agree on what we want to do, but for different reasons: They don't want our people, and I want our people here," Bukele said. "If they don't want them there, help us retain them here."

A Section on 07/02/2019

Print Headline: El Salvador leader: Exodus 'our fault'

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