Diego* sits on the edge of his chair, his legs bouncing up and down from nervousness or pent-up energy. He’s short and wiry, with sun-darkened skin and hair long in front and short on the sides.
The woman behind the desk in front of him asks for his name and ID number and he recites it softly, automatically. He waits for a moment while she copies the information in blue ballpoint pen in the large ledger that sits in front of her.
“How long did you study?” she asks him, pen poised.
“Until fifth grade,” he answers in the same soft, automatic voice.
“Why did you leave school?” she asks.
Diego shrugs: “To work.”
The woman’s eyebrows knit together, but she copies the answer into her ledger. and offers him information about school reintegration. At fifteen years old, he’s been out of school for years, but she could send a letter to the principal, she begins to explain.
“No thank you,” Diego interrupts, “I think… I think I’m going to make the trip again.”
Between 400 and 600 Hondurans are deported every week from Mexico and the United States. Some fled their country because of gang violence, others in hope of a job that could pay something nearer to a living wage. All return to their country with little more than the clothes they are wearing, and a few personal items in a small, drawstring sack.
They all arrive in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, either by plane or by bus, and are sent to a sterile-looking center where they’re processed, interviewed, and given enough bus fare to get home.
Children and teens, who make up a growing percentage of migrants, are processsed in a different reception center. They pass through a cursory health screening, meet briefly with a psychologist, and then sit down with a representative from the Ministry of Education, whose purpose, ostensibly, is to get the teens reenrolled in school. But for most of the young people passing through the doors, any intervention is years too late.
When young migrants return to the same situations that caused them to flee in the first place—unchecked violence, personal threats, lack of job opportunities—there’s little to prevent them from giving the journey another shot. Coyotes even expect this, and often offer a three-for-one deal. If you don’t make it to the States on your first or second try—the next trip’s free.
I meet Dinora* in downtown San Pedro Sula in the beauty shop where she works. She has dyed reddish hair and a sweet smile.
At eighteen, she’s already adept at manicures and cutting, styling, and dying hair. As she’s examining my nails, her manager comes by and assures me Dinora is one of their best. She blushes with pride.
Two years ago, Dinora couldn’t find work anywhere. Her mother, who lost her cleaning job when she became pregnant, couldn’t find work either, and their future in Honduras seemed hopeless. They decided to go the United States, where Dinora’s mother could find work, and Dinora could go to school and help take care of her nieces and nephews.
Dinora was reluctant to go, but the thought of attending school compelled her. She had dropped out after sixth grade because there wasn’t enough money for uniforms and supplies for both her and her four younger siblings, but she had always liked to study. In the United States, she thought, things would be different. Anything seemed possible.
The problem was getting there. For a sixteen-year-old girl and her pregnant mother, the journey was more grueling than they imagined. They traveled for days, sometimes walking, sometimes riding in a car or bus. One night they had to sleep outdoors, and they rarely ate more than once a day. After more than two weeks of travel, when resting in a house, the Mexican police barged in, rounded their group up, and sent them all to a detention center.
They were deported back to Honduras, but a few days later set off again, and were again apprehended. They made the trip three times in three months, the third time reaching the U.S. southern border, when they finally gave up. Their coyote offered them a fourth trip free, and, feeling defeated, they turned him down.
There is increasing political talk in the United States about deporting the migrants who are apprehended at our border or inside of it. There is very little talk about what happens next.
Central American countries like Honduras have no social reintegration programs for returning migrants. Job creation programs are scarce, and most are operated by nongovernmental organizations. Homicides occur at a rate ten times the global average, and nintey-six percent will never result in a conviction. Victims of extortion or death threats by gang members seldom have legal recourse, and traveling north becomes a question of life or death.
Young men like Diego and young women like Dinora wouldn’t migrate if they felt they had another choice. If their homes were safer, if sufficient and dignified jobs were available, if they had access to health care and to education, few would choose to uproot their lives.
The fact that so many do choose to leave the familiar behind is evidence, not of poorly-defended borders, but of deeply unjust living situations, of situations so desperate that people are prepared to do anything, travel anywhere, and try over and over until they reach their goal. Which means two things:
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.
When Dinora was deported for the third time, she heard about a nonprofit program that would pay for job training for returning migrants. She signed up for a training course at a salon, where she so impressed her trainer that she was hired on afterwards as a beautician.
Now, she says, “I lost the desire to leave.”
“I wouldn’t go back now, because I had the opportunity to study this. And I have a job,” she says.
Job creation programs are no silver bullet. Honduras has severe deficiencies in its health, education, and justice systems that jobs alone can’t address. But this is a start. And for Dinora, it’s shifted her dreams from an imagined life in the United States back to her home country of Honduras.
She imagines owning her own salon someday, she tells me, finishng my nails with a clear swipe of polish, but in the meantime her dreams are to take care of her mother and siblings and even, she adds wistfully, to go back to school.
Honduras has a long way to go before all her dreams can come true – and it will take policies that are proactive, not reactive, to start to see that change.
*The identities of migrants who are minors are protected, so I’ve changed their names here
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).