Voice of San Diego’s Maya Srikrishnan recently traveled to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to better understand of what’s driving people there to seek refuge in the United States in such large numbers. After she returned, she went on Reddit to answer questions about her experience.
Here are a few notable moments from that conversation. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s it like in Honduras?
MS: It depends on where you are. I spent time in San Pedro Sula, which was a big city, and also in a rural area in the mountains nearby, where there are many coffee-growing communities. The rural areas were incredibly beautiful and it was ridiculously hot in the part of the country I was in. San Pedro Sula was very much a bustling city and reminded me in many ways of other cities in Central America in terms of the way buildings were constructed, etc. One thing really struck me, though. There was this culture of fear and distrust underlying everything that I never really felt here in the United States. It was especially acute because there were protests that sometimes ended up in looting or violence while I was there. Everyone’s lives were governed around violence and when it might occur. People made sure to be home before dark because of the protests, storefronts would put linoleum in front of their windows so no one could break in and sometimes in the morning if you drove through a road that had been blockaded the night before, you could see the marks from burned tires and we even drove by a taxi that had been burned once, which was eerie.
What were the first steps you took when assigned this beat? How do you cultivate sources?
In general, I try to talk to anyone and everyone who might have perspective on something when I’m delving in to any kind of reporting that is new to me. When I went to Honduras, I had already met many Honduran asylum-seekers at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Some of them had been deported and were in San Pedro Sula when I was, so I got a chance to talk to them again when they were in a different situation. Some of them pointed me to their friends and family members. I also reached out to academics and other journalists who had spent time in Honduras for suggestions on who I should talk to. That way I not only got the perspective from migrants and their families, but also experts/academics, Honduran journalists, advocates and local politicians.
What were some of the issues that made people come to the U.S., preferably some we don’t hear very often?
Well, we’ve all heard about the poverty and violence extensively. I definitely heard those a lot. One thing that was interesting that I didn’t realize before was that most people in large cities weren’t struggling to find jobs, but that many working-class jobs just didn’t pay enough to keep up with the cost of living. I met many people who had jobs in maquilas, or foreign factories, but would spend up to a third of their paycheck each month just on energy, and were still struggling just to buy enough food and take care of their families. For them, even though they had jobs, it made more sense to migrate.
The other thing I hadn’t heard very often in the U.S. media was how much the country’s problems were tied to the current presidential administration and the party that has been in power since the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras. But once I learned that history and looked at migration patterns, there was a clear correlation. Since 2009, spending on things like health care and education have gone down significantly (with several corruption scandals where that money has been misspent). You’ve also seen a dramatic decrease in protections against woman for things like domestic violence and an increase in femicides. The two large caravans in 2018 came after an election in 2017 that is widely believed to be fraudulent and when people protested the outcome, the government violently cracked down, killing more than 30 people. When I was there, there were mass protests against the administration over health care and education, but also over corruption. People just have lost hope that there is anyone in that country who will look out for them and they are at the point where they feel that not even their vote matters.
Why are Hondurans seeking refuge all the way in America?
There is a long history of Honduran — and Central American — migration to the U.S. That’s a key reason why many people, especially those who are poorer and have fewer resources, continue to come here. Not only is there the greater precedent of Hondurans coming to the U.S. for decades to find safety and better economic opportunities, but most Hondurans actually have family, or at the very least friends, already here. When you’re going to a new country, where you don’t really know how anything works, having people in the country who can support you is a big pull.
Are people in Honduras genuinely hopeful for a better life? I’m wondering if the collective mental image of the U.S. has changed, especially with the Trump administration.
Honestly, what really struck me was how little hope there was. I probably heard, “there’s no hope here” from dozens of people in some form or another. I also heard many people say they would rather die on the journey to the U.S. than die in Honduras — a fate they saw as inevitable. I think many people forget that Central Americans have been risking their lives to come to the U.S. for decades. Sometimes it slows, but when things are bad in their country, they are bad. Immigrants are rational people. If leaving was that much worse than staying in their country, they wouldn’t leave. But they make decisions about what is best for them and right now, given the conditions in Honduras, for many that still means leaving.
What’s the biggest misconception about immigration and the San Diego-Tijuana border? I feel like there are so many false narratives around immigration to the United States.
The biggest misconception is that most of the unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. come through the U.S.-Mexico border. That hasn’t been the case for years!
The source of unauthorized immigrants that is growing the fastest today is that of visa overstays. Visa overstays have exceeded people entering the country without inspection for the past seven years. In 2016-2017, visa overstays accounted for 62 percent of undocumented immigrants, while 38 percent had crossed a border illegally. Most of those visa overstays come from China and India, not from Latin America.
What drives you to do what you do and how easy or hard is it for you to remain emotionally detached from the people that you see?
I think journalism plays an important role in things like immigration, which are so politicized right now, in helping people understand the reality on the ground. It helps people see the perspectives of people they may not talk to regularly or grasp what certain policies actually do.
It is definitely not easy to remain emotionally detached from situations when you are reporting on vulnerable people. At the end of the day, I’m a journalist, but also a human being. I do try to make sure that regardless of how much emotion someone’s story evokes in me, that I can still verify what they are saying before I write about it for other people. That’s part of being a professional journalist. Most of the time, I have asylum-seekers show me documents related to their case or corroborate things with other people who were there, like family members or witnesses. Those aren’t always things that I can share with readers because often these cases are sensitive and people’s lives may be at risk — so it’s different than linking to a financial document we obtain when we’re writing about how a school district misspends money, for example — but it’s something I do on the back end.
In your opinion, is the trek to the U.S. justifiable from what you witnessed in Honduras?
I met many people in really dire circumstances — they could barely make ends meet or were scared for their lives. Having never been in either of those situations myself, it’s hard for me to judge whether it’s “justifiable” or not, but I heard several times that people felt they were going to be killed soon in Honduras and for them it was better to try to leave for something else — and even die during the journey — than stay where they were, paralyzed waiting for it, and that really struck me.
Have your own question for Srikrishnan? Contact her by email at email@example.com.