Thousands of Honduran people left the country last month in a caravan headed north, and I have not wanted to write about it, because I know just enough stories to know that there is no one simple story. I sometimes joke that if you ever feel lost in an argument, you can always safely interject, “But it’s really much more nuanced than that!” and that rings true for almost anything I could say about this too.
However, people have been asking me questions, and I recognize that for many of them, I am their closest connection to Honduras. I care about this country, and I care about it being understood as more than a U.S. political cudgel. I’ve lived in Honduras for nearly four years, I’ve studied Honduras’ policies and public systems, I’ve talked to people who have experienced migration and deportation. But I’m also not an expert, and I don’t work directly with migrants or migration policy. So read up elsewhere on the details and take these words only as a starting point for thinking about immigration and all the causes behind it in a way that is bigger and more complex than partisan arguments.
What is the “caravan”?
Thousands of Hondurans left this country last month to begin the exhausting and dangerous walk north through Guatemala and then Mexico, hoping for a chance to cross into the United States. The decision to travel in a caravan was born from necessity. Coyotes’ fees have been rising recently—they’re now $6,000 or $7,000 for a border crossing. Meanwhile the journey north has only grown more dangerous. Traveling in a group promised safety, and, as we would all find out, increased visibility.
“We were only walking so that we could be visible, so that they would recognize that we are a large group of people who just want to be heard so that international law can protect us as we migrate and seek to improve our lives,” the group of migrants said in a recent press statement.
Are these people illegal immigrants?
No. People in the caravan are coming to seek asylum in the United States. Asylum gives people whose lives are at risk in their home country the opportunity to travel unobstructed to another country. Seeking asylum is not only legal, it is protected under international treaties, and only possible at a U.S. port of entry. It is not possible to apply for asylum in the United States from your home country—you must physically present yourself at the U.S. border.
Why have asylum claims increased in recent years? WOLA has a good factsheet with some insight. Why don’t people ask for asylum in Mexico? Some have. But Mexico has its own economic and security problems, not to mention an extensive asylum backlog.
It’s worth mentioning here the U.S.’s own asylum backlog that has left thousands of people stranded in border cities. This American Life did an eye-opening feature on the chaotic system that relies on a handwritten list managed by a volunteer asylum seeker to track who is next in line for an interview. This backlog and disorganization prevents thousands of at-risk people from getting the due process they are owed.
Is this a migration crisis?
After leaving Honduras, the caravan grew to 3,000 people and reached 7,000 at its peak, by some reports. This may seem like a large number of people, but is roughly equal to the number of Hondurans emigrating every two weeks all year long, Vox reported. This caravan does not mark some new peak in Central American immigration—in fact, apprehensions at the U.S./Mexico border are actually at a historic low. What is new about this moment is simply the visibility of the migration movement. It is important to recognize the needs of migrants, especially such a large group of migrants, as an important humanitarian issue, but to call it a “crisis” is inflammatory, and doesn’t reflect the reality of recent statistics on immigration. The real “crises” are those things that are causing migration in the first place.
Why are people leaving Honduras?
Many urban Hondurans are fleeing violence. Many rural Hondurans are escaping extreme poverty stemming from floods, droughts, and important crop failures. But this is a simplification of the many complex and interrelated reasons that people leave. Corruption and weak government systems limit access to health, education, and the protection of human rights, particularly for minority groups. Honduras’ tight economic relationship with the United States limits local economic opportunities.
About two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty, and about one-third live in extreme poverty, on just a few dollars per day. Gangs control territories through brutal force that restricts movement and opportunities, and costs hundreds of people their lives each year. Drug trafficking through the country’s less-populated areas pours billions of dollars of illicit funds into the country, which become weapons and bribes and protection for a class of elite criminals.
If you trace these causes deeper, you’ll find a history of Spanish colonialism and U.S. imperialism that privileged the elite at the cost of the poor. Even today, “special economic zones” offer tax breaks and lower minimum wages to international businesses, while Honduran businesses struggle. If you look far enough back, you’ll find the roots of gang violence in U.S.-born gangs. You’ll find drug trafficking rooted in the voracious U.S. appetite for cocaine.
People leave in desperation, but they also leave with hope. You can earn in one month in the United States what it would take you a year to earn in Honduras. Schools are open every day; they have roofs and walls. Things seem possible in the United States that seem impossible in Honduras. Don’t take my word for it—there are plenty of people reporting on migrants and asylum seekers in their own words.
What should we do about immigration?
If halting immigration is your ultimate goal, walling off the border will not accomplish this. When the alternative is unthinkable, people will find their way over any wall that could be built.
But also—if the well-being of the people in Central America is your ultimate goal, opening wide the border will not alone accomplish this. Immigration is a human right, but it is also an extreme action, one that—if presented with a real choice—many would prefer not to take.
The best response to high levels of immigration is not deportation—it’s prevention. It’s promoting peace and prosperity within these countries. It’s justice for victims of crime and opportunities that are close to home.
It is not a partisan statement to say that the U.S. immigration system is broken. We need to demilitarize the border, keep families together, expedite the asylum interview process, and consider expanding, not limiting, the numbers and types of visas available. Others with a better understanding of law and policy have written extensively on possible reforms—I would encourage everyone to press elected officials to prioritize these reforms.
What about U.S. aid to Honduras?
Trump famously tweeted that if Honduras didn’t stop its citizens from leaving the country, he would cut all aid to the country. However, as the Washington Office on Latin America states: “It’s nonsensical to imagine that cutting aid to a troubled region might stop people from trying to migrate.”
Many people misunderstand U.S. foreign aid. Some imagine it takes up a far higher portion of the U.S. budget than it does. In fact, less than one percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid (meanwhile fifty-four percent of the U.S. budget goes to military spending. Please come to your own conclusions about which is a better investment in the safety and stability of world governments.)
Others are (rightfully) dubious about U.S. partnership with local military forces, which has led to human rights abuses. That is an important concern, and I think oversight and accountability in any U.S. military exercise is paramount. But the majority of foreign aid to Central America goes neither to local governments nor the military, but to nonprofit organizations or contractors running projects like rural development, food security, youth violence prevention, or government transparency (You can see how all U.S. foreign aid to Central America was distributed in this interactive chart by WOLA). These projects are targeting some of the root causes that lead to migration—cutting off this aid would accomplish exactly the opposite of what Trump intends.
Is Honduras safe?
When people ask me this question, they really mean to ask if I am safe, which is telling. The question is not whether Honduras is safe, but for whom. As long as you have a little money and your own transportation and the ability to avoid confrontation with organized crime, Honduras is no more dangerous than many parts of the United States. Saint Louis, Baltimore, and Detroit all have higher per capita homicide rates than Honduras’ capital city.
However, Honduras is devastatingly violent for the poor, especially the urban poor, especially those who live in what are called “marginalized neighborhoods” on the hills around Tegucigalpa and along the rivers of San Pedro Sula. My street, which is in walking distance of two malls, a sushi restaurant, and an Argentinian steakhouse, is nowhere near the crossfire.
A few weeks ago, a man was shot just a few meters from the youth center where I volunteer on Saturdays. That afternoon the children chattered about it. “Well, when they killed my aunt…” one would start; “I remember at my brother’s friend’s funeral…” another would add. Violence was sobering for them, but also, to an extent, normal.
After the children went home, I rode my moped down the hill, past the university and two different malls to a cultural event downtown at a brand new co-working space with murals on every wall and chic, urban décor that would feel familiar in any number of up-and-coming U.S. cities. A man sang opera, two boys danced hip-hop, a Honduran-made film based on a Honduran book played in one room, and a Honduran rock band played to an enthusiastic crowd on the roof. There were hundreds of people downtown that night, some snapping photos on their iPhones, others on the street hawking iPhone chargers. This was the Honduras that I know, a Honduras of inequalities and contradictions, a Honduras I’ve never read about in the news.
What stories aren’t being told about Honduras?
I recognize that I belong to a privileged class of Honduran residents who have the time and resources to go to jazz concerts, gallery openings, symphonies, and experimental theater productions—but I think more people should be aware that Honduras is a place that has the talent to put on these events.
I recognize that I am part of a small minority of people in the country with a steady eight-to-five office job—but I think more people should know that this country is filled with brilliant lawyers, engineers, teachers, and accountants who are capable of making their country a better place.
Not everything that comes out of Honduras is bad news. Congressmen are going to jail, homicides are dropping, more girls are getting an education, communities are building each other up. To paint Honduras as a lost cause is premature—what’s more, it minimizes the efforts of brave activists and tireless community leaders who have decided to invest in the country and make it a better place.
While in no way erasing the difficulties that so many Hondurans live, we need to paint a fuller picture that recognizes that there is life here still, there is national pride here still, there is culture, there is innovation, and there is still time to make this country a place no one needs to flee.
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).