Criminalizing Victims: the Fate of Honduran Refugees 

Photo by Sean Hawkey | CC BY 2.0

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Honduran human rights leader and Jesuit priest Fr. Ismael Moreno Coto, who was a friend of slain environmental activist Berta Caceres, plans to meet with members of the US Congress this week in order to “offer a number of suggestions on how the U.S. government can play a constructive role in promoting human rights in Honduras.” He is currently on a 9-city tour of the United States to raise awareness about the state of contemporary Honduran society and the historically negative role that the US has played there, especially in its support and funding of right-wing governments and the Honduran military.

The Trump administration’s recent decision to suspend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 57, 000 Hondurans who came to the United States after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in 1998 may have also inspired his visit. Trump’s refusal to renew TPS will affect a total of 300,000 Central Americans and Haitians. The vast majority are perfectly law-abiding members of US society who have now, at the stroke of a pen, been criminalized. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Father Ismael may appeal to American government officials to fight against sending vulnerable people to one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere.

TPS, part of the 1990 Immigration Act, is designed to provide sanctuary for those who are the victims of “Ongoing armed conflict (such as civil war), environmental disaster (such as earthquake or hurricane), … an epidemic, … [and] other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” It allows protected persons to work legally in the United States but does not provide a path to citizenship. There are also other important provisions: if a country cannot ensure the safe return of its citizens or “is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately” then these facts on the ground, from a legal and moral point of view, must be taken into consideration.

More than a few TPS recipients may feel compelled to remain in the US illegally due to grave and legitimate safety concerns. It is also important to note that some, after an absence of many years, simply have no physical homes to which they can return. Also, it is doubtful that many would voluntarily subject thousands of their American-born children to conditions back home. The State Department regularly issues travel advisories for its own embassy staff, American contract workers, and tourists working or traveling in, for example, Honduras because of the many incidents of theft and assault. Ordinary Hondurans are far more vulnerable. The Central American countries to which Trump would like to send former legal residents could become a virtual death sentence for those who decide to comply with deportation orders. One may argue that there has been an “Ongoing armed conflict” among rival gangs in places like Honduras, and a level of violence that long ago became a social disaster that has reached epidemic proportions. Tragically, none of this has been temporary but fits the general spirit of TPS requirements for those in need of safe harbor.

Unfortunately, the White House has not included current social realities into its latest judgment concerning foreign nationals, which has been an unsurprising and consistent pattern ever since it entered the White House. President Trump and his allies have steadfastly adhered to their anti-immigrant ideology despite the fact that career diplomats who work in Central America have warned the administration that carrying out deportation plans would further destabilize the region.

Suspending TPS is particularly cruel and counterproductive, but it is essentially a dramatic continuation of the general disregard for human life to which a succession of US governments — Democrat and Republican — has subjected Central America and Haiti for many years. From backing coups to supporting repressive regimes, the US has done much damage to these countries. For example, Thomas Carothers, who worked at the State Department on Central America policy during the Reagan administration, came to the conclusion that Washington’s role in Honduras “was if anything a negative force for democratization in that it greatly strengthened the antidemocratic military … and made a mockery of Honduran sovereignty.” Over 30 years later, the Obama administration, with the concerted efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, supported the ouster of the democratically elected government of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. Jake Johnston and Stephen Lefebvre of the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that since the overthrow, economic inequality, poverty, and unemployment have significantly increased. They write that “In the two years after the coup, over 100 percent of all real income gains went to the wealthiest 10 percent of Hondurans.” Increased crime and violence often follow in the wake of economic troubles, and Honduras was no exception.

According to a 2016 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report, in 2015 alone, over 1,000 children and young adults were murdered in connection with criminal activities. Of that number, nearly 300 were under the age of 17. The report states that children comprise 48 percent of the country’s population, so the gangs view them as completely disposable. If someone is killed, they can easily find a replacement. For them, life is cheap, and even younger children are not spared.

In 2016, the New York Times reported a particularly horrid, vicious case in which a seven-year-old child, Kenneth Castellanos, was tortured and killed at the hands of gang members in the city of San Pedro Sula. He went off on his bicycle in search of his older brother, Anthony, who had gone missing. Fearing he had been kidnapped, Kenneth went to find him where the local gang members congregated. The two brothers’ bodies were found a few days apart.

Girls are also at risk of death but not as often as boys; rather, they are sometimes abducted and raped. At the very least, many are pressured into sexual relations with gang members through physical threats to their families. If they have relatives who live in remote areas, they might try to hide farther up in the mountains or in other rural districts and find work in agriculture. They, too, are occasionally caught, and succumbing to threats, become the property of gang members who often sell them off. Some are sent to other cities or even to the US as part of sex trafficking rings.

Many TPS beneficiaries have lived in the US for two decades or more. They make significant contributions to the US economy and, from a distance, the economies of their home countries. They pay taxes, maintain saving accounts, and purchase their own homes. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center estimates that sending these groups back to their home countries would result in a 45.2 billion decrease in US GDP and a loss of 6.9 billion to the Social Security and Medicare programs over the course of the next decade. In addition, deporting so many people would cost the US taxpayer 3.1 billion. Given the fact that many are currently supporting relatives back home through remittances (as much as 20 percent of GDP of many countries), they might be doubly reluctant to return home. The loss of US dollars could further undermine the already fragile, underdeveloped economies of several nations as well as thousands of family incomes, which would likely spur more illegal immigration to the US, the opposite of what the current US administration wants.

Behind all of the economic statistics and forecasts, however, are real human beings who may in the near future face conditions that are unimaginable to most Americans. I worked as an English and art teacher at a refugee resettlement agency that serves child migrants from Central America. Children who are caught and detained at the US-Mexican border are often sent to residential facilities throughout the United States where their paperwork is processed and where they await reunification with family members or guardians. Many left their homes in order to escape the crushing poverty and epidemic-level violence that has plagued countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala for decades.

One of my students, thirteen-year-old Abel, came from Honduras. He related an all-too-typical story to me; it illustrates the dire social circumstances in which people must live.

I have changed some of the details and the names to mask his and his family’s identities.

Abel was 12 when his mother, Maria, told him he could not go to school anymore. His father, Juan, whom Abel had not seen since he was 4, went to Cleveland, Ohio, where worked as a day laborer and landscaper. Given the seasonal nature of outdoor work, he searched for something with steadier pay and was finally hired at two restaurants, where he washed dishes and sometimes filled in as a busboy. He worked double shifts – 16 hours – most days of the week. Juan could support his family, but it was difficult, so he asked his wife to tell his son that it was time for him to go to work. Even better, perhaps he could join him in the US.

Abel half expected that this would happen. Many of the older boys he knew went to school until only the fourth or fifth grade, and given the precarious conditions in which their fathers toiled in the US, most children, by the time they reached adolescence, were already working on coffee plantations or engaged in other agricultural work; however, it was seasonal and paid very little. Similar to many of the other kids, Abel liked school and regretted having to leave it behind.

In rural areas, there is no school bus service, and some kids even ride mules to their local primary schools. Riding bicycles can be tricky since the roads—more like footpaths— are unpaved and bumpy. When it rains heavily, which often happens in that climate, the narrow thoroughfares through the woods become sticky with mud. Abel walked to school, but he didn’t mind the trip. It gave him time to talk with his friends and school was a welcome break from chores. Besides, he really liked math and science and looked forward to the hour when his teacher wrote new problems on the blackboard that the students had to solve.

In the end, he didn’t argue with his parents’ decision; it seemed to be in the nature of things. Besides, he was excited at the prospect of seeing his father after their years-long separation. On his final day of school, he returned a few books he had borrowed and did not tell his teacher that he would not be back the following year. She probably suspected that anyway.

After some conversation, the family finally decided that Abel should join his father in Cleveland. Two incomes would be better than one. But it was not just the family’s economic survival that was at stake. Abel had started to run into gang members who operated in and around the capital city. They threatened boys his age with death if they refused to participate in the drug smuggling, extortion rackets, and human trafficking that are the criminal organizations’ primary activities and sources of income. He came into contact with them when he started going to the city a few times a week to sell fruit and small items like chewing gum, candy, and cigarettes that he and his mother purchased and sold at a tiny profit. After a few encounters with some scary-looking guys, Abel stopped going to the city to sell things.

His mother was fearful for her son’s safety. She knew a woman whose son — not much older than Abel — was murdered for refusing to join a gang. Apparently, he had run away farther from the outskirts of the city where he lived and for a time was able to hide in the countryside. Eventually, he was caught and killed. Passersby found his body on the side of a road. He was 15 years old.

Abel and several other Honduran boys and girls traveled together by bus from the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, through Guatemala and the southern part of Mexico. At some point, they started to walk, heading north along railroad tracks in order to avoid the Mexican police. Eventually, they met a guide or coyote, who led them to the US-Mexican border. They were often cold, hungry, and very scared. Children are sometimes robbed and vulnerable to sexual assault. Somehow, they made it into the United States, where they were detained by border patrol agents almost immediately after crossing over.

These are the lengths children will go to escape places that have become violent and impoverished. That their own parents, fearing for their sons’ and daughters’ lives, are willing to send them on such perilous journeys to find a modicum of refuge and something of a future speaks volumes. These are the social conditions to which many US governments have crucially contributed and to which the current White House wants to return people who are US citizens in everything but name.

One can hope that Father Ismael’s conversation with sympathetic members of the US Congress will make at least some small difference. President Trump would benefit if he joined them. It is likely that he would have an answer to his general question about why so many Central Americans, Hattians, and Africans have come to the United States and why there is not more robust emigration from Norway.

Michael Slager is an English teacher at Loyola University Chicago.