I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Honduras forever. But a one-year volunteer position ended in a job offer, and that year turned into two, two turned into three, and at every step, it felt like the right decision to stay a little longer. When I leave Honduras at the end of this month, I will have spent more than four years in the country. I’m caught tearing up at odd things like mangoes, buses, and the flickering of streetlights. But as hard as it is to leave, I’m looking forward to moving to Washington, D.C., a city I’ve always loved. I’m looking forward to being closer to my family. In a few weeks I’ll start a Master’s program and an exciting new job, and all together, I feel that I have a good enough reason to leave.
Not a single person has questioned my decision to go back to the United States. I’ve had more people ask why it took me so long. I’m wondering, in my poignant last few weeks here, mourning the situation in this country, grieving the situation at the U.S. border and in migrant detention camps, who gets to decide what is a good enough reason to leave Honduras.
We tend to divide people coming to the United States into neat categories—legal and illegal; deserving and undeserving; fleeing because of violence, fleeing because of an economic situation; and this sorting validates the decision of some while excoriating that of others. Deciding whether a reason to migrate is “good enough” has life-changing consequences. The decision whether or not to grant a visa rests at times arbitrarily with the embassy interviewer, and the granting of asylum rests largely with the judge hearing the case and the quality of legal counsel.
Last year, then-Attorney General Sessions determined that domestic violence was not a good enough reason to seek asylum in the United States, even though the impunity rates in Central American countries are abysmal, and gender-based violence is rampant. Judges have made the same argument against granting asylum for gang violence, or violence in general, and people have been deported at the risk of their lives.
Similarly on the chopping block under this administration are family reunification visas, which allow U.S. citizens to apply for residency on behalf of members of their nuclear family. Apparently reuniting with your parents, children, or siblings is not a good enough reason to migrate either.
“Economic migrants” are often cited at the very bottom of the list of so-called “deserving migrants.” Immigrants who “just” want a better opportunity to work are seen as presumptuous and job-stealing. There is a keen conservative interest in debunking migrants’ reports of fleeing violence or discrimination, with the idea that if they are “only” fleeing poverty or seeking opportunity, the United States should have no obligation to let them in.
That argument to me seems callous. I say this as someone who has pursued education and a career path across borders—the fact that the passport you are born with, more than skill, interest, or ability, can limit your opportunity to travel seems cruel and absurd.
I could write page after page about crushing poverty in Honduras, gang violence, drug trafficking, state fragility, electoral fraud, corruption. I could write about the frustration and impotence people feel when protests seem to make no difference, the hopelessness when hospitals run out of medicine, the fear when gangs shake down small businesses for their meager profits. All of these things are essential to understanding why people from Honduras choose to migrate.
But not every Central American who reaches the U.S. border is fleeing for her life. Not everyone has exhausted every other option. Our immigration policy should prioritize life-or-death cases, but we lose something when our discourse generalizes those cases to the point where someone who cannot pass a credible fear interview is seen as trying to game the system.
Have you ever chosen to leave a small town that was home because your dreams didn’t fit inside anymore?
Have you moved houses or neighborhoods because your stomach clenched when you would go outside, your hands resting on the pepper spray on your purse?
Have you taken a new job sight unseen, moving to a different city or a different state to start a new chapter?
Have you bought a plane ticket impulsively, or gotten into your car and started driving, hoping you can put some darkness behind you, hoping you can start again?
Of course, we should absolutely remain dedicated to fixing root problems in places like Central America, holding corrupt leaders accountable and strengthening the government systems that provide health, education, infrastructure, security, and justice. But while that’s happening, I could never look someone in the face and tell them that my reason to leave my country for years—school, a job, the desire to try something new—was good enough, but their reason to come to mine isn’t.
This may be the last post I’ll write from Honduras. Leaving here is difficult, but it’s right, and if someone else tells me that they made the same choice, I won’t place myself as judge or jury. I don’t need to hear a good enough reason. If you’re here—welcome.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).