With the Trump administration set to decide next month whether to renew Temporary Protected Status for nearly 60,000 Hondurans — potentially sending them back to a country they barely know — government leaders and citizens in the Central American country worry the move could worsen economic and food insecurity problems, and even prompt some immigrants to return to the U.S. illegally.
The U.S. granted Hondurans the special immigration status in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch, allowing them to stay in the country without fear of deportation as long as the designation continued. TPS grants immigrants legal status in the U.S. —they can work and must pay taxes — because of conditions in their home country, such as civil war or natural disaster. Since the hurricane, the U.S. has renewed TPS for Hondurans 13 times.
The Trump administration has said it may revoke TPS for some countries, affecting as many as 300,000 people from the Western Hemisphere. In addition to Honduras, it currently extends to Haitians, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, among others.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has called on the Trump administration to continue TPS for the “honest” and “hardworking” Hondurans in the U.S. The U.S. is expected to make a TPS decision for Honduras in early November, 60 days before the current Jan. 5 expiration.
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Politically, deciding whether to allow migrants to remain in the U.S. under TPS issue could be tricky for Trump. He has promised to crack down on immigration but in June, the administration pledged support to developing Central American nations during a two-day conference in Miami. The Honduran president used the occasion to push for TPS, meeting with Honduran leaders from around the U.S. during his visit.
Honduras is not prepared to take people back, both officials and citizens say — and the lack of opportunity there might even prompt some to return to the U.S. illegally. Honduras’ economy is dominated by agriculture, and Honduran Minister of Agriculture Jacobo Paz said that despite government programs to improve agricultural practices, providing training to thousands of returning Hondurans will overtax the country’s abilities.
“I’ll be honest, we don’t have that capacity,” Paz said. “But we have to start with something.”
Without jobs, some of the newly returned Hondurans will start thinking about the U.S. again, he added.
“Once we have these guys back and if we don’t give them a chance, most of them will try to go back,” Paz said.
Honduras is plagued by corruption and its shaky democracy is still rebounding from a coup in 2009 that deposed elected President Manuel Zelaya amid a constitutional crisis. The military overthrow was blessed by the country’s Supreme Court, halting Honduras’ slow democratic progress.
An influx of tens of thousands of people who may not have seen their homeland in years — in addition to the 40,000 people a year Honduras already repatriates — would put severe strains on a system that is already struggling to feed its people, create jobs, boost economic growth and stop gang and drug violence. More than 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The government, acknowledging the need for agricultural training to create more employment, has launched a number of programs including an agricultural training center in Comayagua, in the center of the country, where irrigation specialists from Israel train Hondurans in better ways to raise crops.
But even with this training, Paz said the government faces a challenge because it may be difficult to convince people that their futures can be in agriculture. As prices for the country’s traditional top two exports — coffee and bananas — have fallen, it has become more difficult for people to make a living off the land. Climate change and drought in the country’s Dry Corridor, where 92 percent of the country’s population lives, has also severely hurt farming.
And many returnees from the U.S. may not want to learn the skills needed to farm successfully.
“A lot of the migrants that come back, they do not want to go back to the rural areas. They want to stay in the city,” Paz said.
Heide B. Fulton, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, said the U.S. government is backing programs that help people succeed in their homeland.
“We are supporting Honduran efforts to improve security, create broad-based economic growth and combat corruption because it is in the United States’ interest that Hondurans be able to envision their future, and their children’s future, here in Honduras,” Fulton said. “If Honduras can be an even stronger partner in trade ... we all benefit.”
Honduras depends on money — an estimated $4 billion a year — sent home from abroad. Almost one-fifth of its GDP comes from the diaspora, although it’s not known how much comes directly from TPS recipients.
The flow of people out of Honduras is driven primarily by economic and food insecurity, a recent joint report from the Organization of American States, World Food Program and other organizations found. World Food Program country director Judith Thimke said a return of TPS recipients to Honduras could complicate the work they are already doing on the ground to combat these drivers of migration.
Although people also leave Honduras due to its sky-high murder rate stemming from gang and drug violence, TPS was granted in 1999 because of a natural disaster. Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in the fall of 1998, killing more than 5,000 people and destroying 70 percent of crops, forcing large populations to abandon their homes.
Some towns, such as Villanueva, outside Honduras’ second-largest city of San Pedro Sula, grew out of the hurricane. Many who moved there don’t hold titles to their land, and built homes anywhere they could after the disaster left them with nothing.
But residents of the community that was built because people had nowhere to go don’t think their new home could weather a flow of new people from the U.S.
“They’re going to suffer,” warned Irma Bertilia Figueroa, who moved to Villanueva from the department of Yoro after the hurricane. “There’s no employment here.”
In the capital of Tegucigalpa, with a population of a little over a million, there is also concern that those who return wouldn’t be able to make a living. Hondurans said they don’t understand why the U.S. would throw out people who have been working and paying taxes there for nearly two decades.
“The most logical thing [the U.S.] can do would be to give these people citizenship,” resident Carlos Rubio said. “They don’t understand they’re going to cause a problem rather than solving a problem.”
Although some TPS returnees may be better educated and have saved money during their time in the U.S., their arrival could displace other Hondurans from the job market, said Reynaldo Vasquez, 58, as he sat in a food court waiting for a friend in upscale Tegucigalpa mall Multiplaza.
“It’s going to make unemployment go up,” he said.