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Call centers in El Salvador become refuge for deportees from US

US immigration authorities deported 27,180 Salvadorans last year. Deportees are sometimes stigmatized and have a hard time finding work. Call centers in El Salvador employ about 17,000 people.

Over the phone, clients don't see the tattoos.

Clients calling toll-free numbers to book hotels, find airline flights, track down lost luggage or deal with bank questions usually have no idea that the voice on the other end is a Salvadoran, sometimes with a tattooed neck, arms and back, who's been deported from the United States.

International call centers have become a lifeline for thousands of Salvadorans who've been booted from the United States. The call center industry may as well be called Second Chance Inc.

Some of the deportees had lived years, even decades, in the US, often in gritty urban neighborhoods. They arrive back in El Salvador disoriented, accustomed to speaking English, not Spanish, and trained in jobs that are useless in the tropics, like fireplace maintenance. Many bear tattoos common in the United States but that carry a heavy stigma in El Salvador, where they are seen as a telltale sign of criminality. 

Wilfredo Gómez Turcios, 35, spends his days politely booking hotel rooms for those calling hotels.com, offering a congenial voice.

When he departs for home after work, some passersby give him a wide berth.

"They look at me [and] they grab their kids," says Mr. Gómez, who bears a scripted tattoo of his mother's name, "Juana," on his neck.

Gómez is quick to recognize his own shortcomings, a past heavy on partying, traveling with the wrong crowd. But he's also fluent in English, has an easy manner, and is quick to please. That's the kind of person the call centers like.

"As long as they are good sellers, and have a good background, yeah, we'll take them," says Jaime E. Varela, a recruitment specialist for Sykes Enterprises, a Tampa, Fla.-headquartered company that operates call centers round the globe.

Deportees "are very loyal," Mr. Varela adds. "They know they won't get another shot."

Some 2 million Salvadorans have left their homeland in recent decades for the United States, where many don't have legal residency. US immigration authorities deported 27,180 Salvadorans last year.

One out of five of them had lived for five years or longer in the United States, says César Ríos, executive director of the nonprofit Salvadoran Institute for Migrants. They are the ones who have better English skills, multicultural experience, and perhaps a solid work ethic, he adds.

But they face discrimination. US authorities sent them back with a list of violations, from traffic misdemeanors to felonies.

"All those who arrive come with some sort of crime: Running a red light is a crime. Drinking beer on the street is a crime," Mr. Ríos says, noting behaviors that are generally disregarded by Salvadoran police. "People think all the deportees who arrive back are criminals."

That's a bit ironic, because gang-related violence is soaring in El Salvador, which tallied a record 621 homicides in May, the highest monthly toll in two decades. Some deportees feel unsafe.

"We're scared to be here," says Guillermo López, a stout 40-year-old who spent decades along the US East Coast before his deportation in May 2013.

Rodrigo Galdámez, manager of English4callcenters.com, a training center for prospective employees, said those returning find their work options limited.

"The deportees cannot get a job in places like shopping centers," Mr. Galdámez says. "Their only option is to get a job in a call center. They come all tatted up and you can't get a job if you're all covered in tattoos."

Many of those who are deported think only of returning to the United States. Readjustment can take months. Many are slow to look for work.

"They return to their home villages, and it's a big shock to them. Their family members see them as layabouts," Ríos says, adding that it takes six to eight months for average deportees to adapt to their situation and look for work.

"There's a lot of frustration," added Vinicio Sandoval, executive director of the Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador, which observes and reports on labor rights. Many supported their families with remittances, and suddenly they arrive home with nothing. "In a week, they go from being a hero to a nuisance."

Once they look for a job, the comedown in earning power is chastening.

"I do fireplaces and chimneys," says López, a mason who was deported in 2013 and works at a call center. "I was making $150 a day in New York. I make $7 a day here."

With commissions, average wages at the call centers start at around $500 a month, more than double the normal Salvadoran wage.

"We have to humble ourselves to make this $500 a month," says Gómez, who spoke to a reporter wearing shin-length baggy shorts and a T-shirt. He said he used to pressure clean building facades in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, Fla., earning $1,000 a week. Now he works at a call center on an account for hotels.com, taking queries from English-speaking clients in Asia, Europe, and North America.

But López said the wage he earns "is enough to survive." At his job, he said, he makes "reservations for people flying Air France."

Other call centers handle insurance claims, offer technical support for electronics, track down lost luggage, or deal with health care issues.

Eight to 10 firms operate call centers in El Salvador and employ about 17,000 people. Major players include Spain-based Atento, Paris-based Teleperformance, Sykes, Cincinnati-based Convergys, and Telus International of Vancouver, B.C.

El Salvador's call center industry, which got its start in 2001, is smaller than that of neighboring Guatemala. Both nations compete with countries like India and the Philippines, which have larger populations of English speakers.

El Salvador has some advantages with its dollar-based economy. Guatemala, too, receives thousands of deportees from the United States each year. Both nations enjoy proximity to the United States and Canada, reducing costs of operation

Even those who have lived in the English-speaking world need training in proper English to work in the call centers, says Varela, the Sykes recruiter.

"You have to say 'sir' instead of 'dude.' You have to say 'ma'am' instead of 'yo,'" Varela says.

Varela says the call center operators employ increasingly stringent standards.

"Everybody deals with credit cards. That's the easiest way to commit fraud," Varela says, noting that employees work in environments where they can't jot down clients' credit card numbers. They have no access to paper, pens, cellphones, or email.

Experts acknowledge that any benefit the call centers offer to the host nations by pulling deportees off the streets is tangential to their business.

"There isn't a lot of discrimination in the matter of appearance," says Sandoval, but he adds that by hiring deportees the call centers are not so much showing social responsibility as tapping into a niche in the workforce that helps them earn profits.

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