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In many rural, coffee-growing towns around Peña Blanca, Honduras you don’t even need to ask people about their ties to the United States. Their houses give them away.
The nicer homes – with multiple rooms and made of concrete – are largely constructed thanks to money sent back to Honduras from family members living elsewhere – called remissions. Plummeting coffee prices have driven migration from rural Honduras to the country’s cities and to the United States. Those who don’t have family sending money live in grave poverty.
The journey to the United States is often long, dangerous and costly. But it’s a path well-worn by many Hondurans and other Central Americans. Nearly everyone has family, friends or acquaintances already in the United States.
For decades, Central Americans have been migrating to the United States. And for the most vulnerable – the poorest, those fleeing violence and persecution – the United States is a destination not because of some intangible ideological commitment to freedom but because of very real and practical ties to family and community members who are already there.
The number of people leaving Honduras has been increasing in recent years for many reasons – political upheaval, unchecked violence and crime, extreme poverty – but the reasons they come specifically to the United States have been steadily etched for decades.
As U.S. border policy becomes ever more focused on forcing Central Americans to stop coming to the United States – including by forcing them to wait out the adjudication of their asylum claims in Mexico – the history of migration between the two countries, and the familial ties that history has created, in turn creating an ever greater pull for those still in Honduras – is more important than ever to understand. For asylum-seekers from Central America who are often fleeing for their lives and don’t have highly sought-after skills like a physics Ph.D., these family networks are their resources.
They may not have money. They may not speak English. They may not know the ins and outs of the complex legal system through which they’ll be requesting asylum in the United States. But they often do know someone who’s already there. And when you have nothing else, that counts for a lot.
The Pull of Family
One Sunday last month, I spent the day visiting the towns around Peña Blanca with Stephen and Anita Youngberg, who run Pan-American Health Service. The organization helps malnourished children from rural areas and works with the parents and other community leaders with vocational training.
As Anita Youngberg said goodbye for the day to Maria, one of the community members she worked with, she playfully asked Maria’s 5-year-old grandson about some of his family members’ whereabouts.
“They left for the United States,” he responded.
Maria’s two daughters are in Houston.
The younger one, who is 26, has been there for three years. She went there to find work, and left her son behind with Maria. She sends them both money. As difficulties in Honduras continued, Maria’s older daughter, who is 29, also decided to leave in February, and brought her 9-year-old son with her. (VOSD declined to publish Maria’s full name because her daughter has a pending asylum claim in the United States.)
U.S. border officials released the older daughter to her sister. They’re both now working.
In general, in order to be bonded or paroled out of immigration detention, individuals need to provide immigration judges or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials with evidence that they have a sponsor – someone, often a family member or friend, who is willing to support them upon their release from custody. Having a sponsor doesn’t guarantee someone will be released from detention, but not having one can significantly decrease a person’s chances of being released.
For families, who can’t be detained for very long under current law, knowing someone in the United States who can support them upon release has become even more urgent in the past year.
When families turn themselves in at a port of entry to request asylum or ask Border Patrol agents for asylum after they’ve crossed into the country illegally, they spend a few days in custody and then are released. There are only three ICE family detention facilities in the country – two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania – and due to a 1997 settlement, the government can only detail children who’ve traveled with their parents for 20 days at most.
ICE used to review migrant families’ post-release plans, ensuring they had travel arrangements to connect with a sponsor elsewhere in the United States. But the agency stopped the practice in October amid the uptick in families requesting asylum along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying that it no longer has the capacity to conduct those reviews. Local service providers and local government officials stepped in to provide temporary shelter to families who crossed into the United States without any resources to reach their sponsors.
Speak with Hondurans coming to the U.S. – and even Hondurans still living in Honduras – and patterns quickly become clear: Most have family and friends clustered in certain hubs in the United States.
There are roughly 53,000 Hondurans in Houston, 38,000 in Los Angeles and 11,000 in Charlotte, according to the Migration Policy Institute. There are close to 51,000 Hondurans throughout New Jersey, concentrated in cities like New Brunswick, Union City, Jersey City, Elizabeth and Newark.
Kevin, a 14-year-old from Honduras who traveled to Tijuana with a caravan in April, was heading to Los Angeles to join his father.
Denilson – a young man I met from the fall 2018 caravan – has a sister in New Jersey. The father of G.F., a young domestic violence victim who tried to make it to the United States, but was deported from Mexico on the way, also lives in New Jersey.
In contrast, not having family or friends willing to support you in the United States has motivated other people I’ve met to stay in Mexico. Sandra Perez, who traveled to Tijuana in the April 2018 caravan, told me she decided to stay in Tijuana for many reasons, including that she had no family willing to sponsor her in the United States.
A History of Migration
Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest commonly known as Father Melo and director of Radio Progreso, a Jesuit-owned radio station based in the city of El Progreso, traces the migration of Hondurans to the United States – and the large caravans of mainly Hondurans who arrived in Tijuana last year – to more than a century ago, when U.S. companies began intensive banana production and exportation in the country’s northwest coast.
In the late 20th century, the companies began to leave Honduras. As jobs disappeared, many Hondurans followed those opportunities the United States.
“The population of Honduras stayed with this mentality, which is the mentality of a ‘Banana Republic,’” said Moreno. “When they saw that the gringos weren’t going to return to solve their problems, they went to the United States, searching for what they had lost.”
There have been other major waves of Honduran emigration since then, like during Hurricane Mitch in the late 1990s, when Hondurans were granted temporary protected statuses in the United States. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened to revoke that status, which would send an estimated 57,000 Hondurans who have been living in the United States back to Honduras.
Hondurans are in the midst of another wave of migration that’s been happening for several years. This wave, said Suyapa Portillo Villeda, assistant professor of Chicano-Latino Transnational Studies at Pitzer College, began with a military-backed coup in 2009. That led to the most violent years on record in the country, starting in 2011.
“If you look at records of people being detained and making it through at the border, that is when we see a serious exodus of Hondurans and entry to the U.S.,” Portillo Villeda told me last year. “There’s extortion, gangs, but also intrafamilial violence against women. People wanted to get their kids out by 2014.”
That year, 2014, is when the U.S. saw a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America arrive at the Texas border.
“People know there are no open borders here,” Cecilia Menjívar, sociology professor at the University of Kansas told me last year. “People know it is a treacherous trip. It’s a life-or-death situation crossing Mexico. They know they don’t have a good chance of getting asylum once they’re here.”
Though political upheaval has been driving Hondurans out of the country for the last several years, the United States has a long history of drawing Central American migrants to seek new opportunities here – facilitated by long-standing military, diplomatic, economic and labor connections between the United States and countries in the Northern Triangle.
For example, even when El Salvador was relatively peaceful, early waves of Salvadoran migration to the United States can be linked to the commercialization of coffee, Menjívar said. Members of El Salvador’s coffee-producing elite settled in the San Francisco area, which was the chief processing center for coffee from Central America, as early as the beginning of the 20th century. Then in the 1980s, a brutal civil war in which more than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed led to another wave of migration.
Many of them depended on the Salvadorans who were already in the United States.
“The longtime U.S. presence in Central America created conditions for people to migrate to the U.S.,” she said.
Srikrishnan’s trip to Honduras was funded by the International Center for Journalists.