First in a four-part series
It seems the entire world is wrestling with immigration emergencies today. And lest you think the western hemisphere’s crisis is over, consider the look on Oscar Ortega’s face.
He just got a Whatsapp message that made his eyes pop.
Ortega directs the federal El Edén center in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. El Edén means “Eden.” But to the folks who end up there, it’s hardly the paradise they were reaching for. Instead, it’s back to square one — the place that receives migrants who are bused back into Honduras after they’re intercepted in Mexico on their trek to the United States.
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On this summer morning, Ortega’s smartphone is telling him to get ready for three busloads of deportees: more than 300 people — a tenth of whom are minors traveling alone.
“It’s our job to make those children feel like they’ve come home,” Ortega says, pointing to a new mini soccer field the center is building. “We don’t want them to feel like they’re in another detention facility.”
As weary families and lonely teenagers file out of the buses, Ortega’s staff directs them to a meal of Honduran beef stew. Youths store their belongings in large lockers as matter-of-factly as high school students heading to class.
Soon they’ll be processed, examined by doctors and given shelter for up to three days before relatives pick them up.
Foreign donors like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Organization for Migration are helping to broaden services at El Edén, from hot showers to psychological therapy. But just about every frustrated Honduran migrant who ends up there says the same thing:
“Voy a hacer otro intento.”
Meaning, “As soon as possible, I’m going to make another attempt to get into the United States.”
That’s definitely the plan for a 17-year-old arrival at El Edén named Keler. He was headed to Miami when authorities in southern Mexico booted him back. But almost his entire family lives in the U.S. — and he says if he returns to his town north of Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, the violent gang that rules his neighborhood will either forcibly recruit him or kill him.
“They already shot dead two of my cousins,” Keler says, removing his New York Jets ski cap in the Honduran heat. “That’s what I’d be going back to.”
That’s still a dark dilemma for too many kids in Central America’s northern triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — where vicious, tattooed streets gangs known as maras control whole swaths of territory and homicide rates are among the highest in the world. Until recently, in fact, Honduras and San Pedro Sula were the world’s most murderous country and city.
Combine that with the region’s crushing poverty — about two-thirds of Hondurans are desperately poor — and it helps explain why the U.S. saw a massive migrant surge on its southern border last year. That included a record 68,000 unaccompanied children.
At the time, James Nealon was just being confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Honduras.
“I was told to go down to Honduras and to do whatever I could to help stem that flow,” Nealon says. “And I can say that a year later, at least in the case of Honduras, we’ve had considerable success.”
Yes and no.
U.S. border apprehensions are indeed down by a third this year, according to the Homeland Security Department. And joint Central American-U.S. efforts to improve the northern triangle’s economic and security situation are starting to bear fruit.
But migrants still pour out of Honduras, largely because they continue to face many of the same brutal conditions. And a big reason Central American migrants aren’t reaching the U.S. border is that Mexico is cracking down on them this year.
Back at the El Edén center, a father named Menelio Briones talks about that reality. His wife and five children — one is just a baby — set out for Texas in July. A month later, Mexican officials detained them in Saltillo, just 180 miles from the U.S. border.
We’re going to try again for sure. We don’t have anything to leave behind anymore.
Menelio Briones, a father returned to Honduras after being intercepted in Mexico on trek to the U.S.
“We’re going to try again for sure,” says Briones. “We don’t have anything to leave behind anymore.”
For one thing, Briones explains, decent jobs are next to impossible to find in his northeast Honduran town. So to enhance his children’s economic opportunities, he wanted them to attend a nearby English-language school.
But whenever Briones scraped up enough tuition money from odd construction jobs and his small sundries shop, mareros — or gang members — extorted it from him. When he finally refused to pay, he says they told him he should go to the U.S. — or end up in the local morgue.
Briones’ 13-year-old daughter Stefi witnessed that armed threat — and recalls it in the English she’s just begun to learn.
“The person that want to kill my father,” she says, “he say to go. To go.”
But “to go” still means taking big risks. Mexico now bans migrants form riding La Bestia — The Beast — the monstrous freight train that got so much attention last year. Still, Briones’ wife, Marinelis, accuses Mexican cops of “treating us like animals” in migrant-detention centers there. And the journey from Central America to the U.S. is as dangerous as ever.
El Edén’s medical staff is all too aware of that. Among youth migrants, doctors see everything from severe skin rashes and malnutrition to evidence of rape. Dr. Mirna Hernández doesn’t mince words when she notes her biggest fear for every kid she knows will make the trip again: “Death.”
As a result, Hernández says, “We tell them, ‘Continue life here in Honduras.’ ”
But she concedes their usual reply to her is: “They can’t.”
It’s now up to Honduran and U.S. officials to convince them they can.
Listen to a special hour with Tim Padgett on ‘The Sunshine Economy’ at 9 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. Monday, and reports all week on WLRN 91.3 FM and WLRN.org.
Migration Maze: A four-part series
Interactive Map: Inside the Northern Triangle
Listen to reports by Tim Padgett on WLRN.org.