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Documentary Report: The Surge In Immigration From Central America

David Martin Davies
TPR News
The streets of Comayagüela, Honduras."

Texas Matters: A radio documentary investigating the increase in the number of immigrant refugees, many of them unaccompanied minors, that are turning up at the Texas-Mexico border. The greatest percentage of migrant youth are coming from Honduras.

Arriving in Texas

For the immigrant refugees of Honduras their goal is to reach the Texas-Mexico border. But as many discover when they reach the Rio Grande Valley, that's not the end of their journey. A fortunate few will be able to rest, recover and refocus at LaPosadaProvidencia, an emergency shelter for immigrant refugees and asylum seekers who have just crossed the Rio Grande.

The shelter is on the outskirts of San Benito on a rural road and is hard to find. On one morning a woman from Honduras sitting on the front steps of a shelter’s dorm with her crying 2-year-old daughter on her lap.

She did not want to give her name because it would put her family back in Honduras in danger. She says there is no work in Honduras and no way to make enough money to deal with the rising prices for even the basic food items. She says she came to the United States looking for a better life.

Another woman at La Posada Providencia told a similar story. She also wanted to be anonymous for fears of family reprisals in her home country El Salvador.

Credit David Martin Davies / TPR News
TPR News
La Posada Providencia.

She says she left Central America and came to the United States after gang members demanded extortion payments from her and punched her in the face. She says a man with a shop in her town refused to pay and he was murdered so she took her 10-year-old son and fled to the United States.

As she talks to me her son is sitting near by and he is sobbing, afraid and worried he will never again see his older brother and sister that they left behind in El Salvador.

She says she borrowed $7,000 for the two of them to make the 1,000-mile journey. Most of the journey was on buses and it took almost four weeks to reach the southern border of Texas. When she crossed the Rio Grande near Matamoros and Brownsville she was quickly picked up the U.S. Border Patrol and processed. They took her name, fingerprints and picture and gave her an immigration court date and released her to La Posada Providencia. She calls the order a permiso, as if it’s a permit to enter the United States.

It is and it isn’t -- and that court date could be months away -- but under the “catch and release” policy that the U.S. Border Patrol is practicing, that permiso could seem like a permit to her and the thousands of others – or at least they have decided to treat it like one.

Since July 2013, La Posada has helped more than 1,310 immigrants, most from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Alma Gonzalez, the shelter’s development director, says they seen a tripling of the number of refugees coming through their facilities and needing services.

U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 160,000 immigrants between October 2013 and this past May – this includes a record 47,000 children under 18 who traveled without parents or guardian.

The situation is being called a humanitarian crisis and the federal government is struggling to keep up. And nonprofits, charities and community groups are stepping up to fill the void.

Credit David Martin Davies / TPR News
TPR News
A group of American missionaries help feed the children living on the streets in Comayagüela, Honduras.

In the streets of Tegucigalpa

As night seizes Tegucigalpa the streets of one of the capital city’s toughest neighborhoods are virtually deserted. Most people here know that it’s not safe for anyone to be caught out alone at night. This is where the gangs are notoriously violent.

But then a bus pulls up and out pour about a dozen young American missionaries. They enter what looks like an abandoned building- a homeless shelter run by a faith-based charity called Breaking Chains Honduras. The volunteers are spending their summer vacation feeding the homeless in the murder capital of the world.

But the grim statistics about Honduras don’t deter Breaking Chains liaison Courtney Mathews.

“There are a lot of kids there that we know that come to church with us or that we just try to build relationships with,” she says.

Mathews is giving the new volunteers the rundown on what to expect later when they meet the homeless – she says many will be drunk or high on glue and the volunteers need to watch their valuables.

“If you take a picture of somebody and you put it in their hands to look at [it] that might be the last time that you see your cell phone,” Mathews says.

A heavy rain is falling and now there is a power outage. It’s as dark as coal under the ground except for eerie illumination coming from green and orange glow sticks that one volunteer brought to giveaway to children.  

Even in the dark, Mathews’ list of do’s and don’ts are uninterrupted, and as the Muncie, Indiana native is talking, a smartphone with a flashlight app is held over her head, casting her in a heavenly glow.

“If somebody wants to pray for us real quick just for safety and good trip and everything like that – that would be awesome,” Mathews says.

“Dear God, thank you so much for the group of people gathered here, God, who really want to connect with you and other people here, God. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.”

Mathews is taking the group to a street corner where every night trash gets dumped. The homeless come to sort the garbage, salvaging recyclables that can be sold. And they have learned that this is where they might get a hot bowl of rice and beans.

“This is a good spot for us to come because there is a good amount of people already here – and kids like this will go through the trash and look for stuff or they will beg or some of them will steal, things like that," Mathews says. "But just to kind of get by day to day. So we come to kind of pass out some food and really kind of love on them for a little bit.”

The pouring rain doesn’t deter the children. They approach the back of the pickup truck, where the serving pot is ready. One volunteer holds up a tarp protecting the pot from the falling rain while another dishes the food into white Styrofoam bowls.

Mathews has been doing this work for almost four years. In that time she has gotten to know many of the homeless here; especially the children. She has seen how the gangs are part of life here.

“We have had a few losses -- mainly among the teens. A lot of it is – the ones that we’ve experienced are people that live on the street or people who are involved in gang activity or something like that previously," Mathews says.

Despite the rain some of the volunteers have formed a circle in the street and they are kicking a hacky sack back and forth. Soon some of the homeless kids join in the game. But not one homeless youth called Joey. He and his friends are passing around a Coca-Cola bottle holding about a half an inch of brown glue. They are too high to join in the circle. But Joey sees my recorder and he wants to tell me his story.

In his slurred Spanish Joey says he’s on the street because his mother drinks too much and his father beats him. He says his family told him to leave the house and never come back.

Joey says he knows that many from Honduras are leaving for the United States. And he has an uncle there too. He said would go if something touches his heart.

Something has touched the hearts of over 10,000 Honduran youth, more than any other Central American nation. Unaccompanied children and single mothers with children are showing up in staggering numbers at the Texas-Mexico Border.

And the big question is: Why? The question isn’t just being asked in the United States; Hondurans also want the answer.

The same images in the U.S. media of children being warehoused in U.S. Border Patrol detention facilities are front page news in Honduras. And here TV roundtable talking heads are also debating about what is causing the exodus. The consensus is: out-of-control gang violence, the grinding poverty and lack of economic opportunity.

But why now? Many in Honduras say the nation has hit a tipping point. The gangs have gotten more aggressive with their extortion and recruiting of teenage boys. They are being targeting to either join the gang or be killed.

Meanwhile, Honduran parents, who are already in the United States and working illegally, are now financially able to hire human smugglers to bring their children to the Texas Mexico border.

That’s also the view of Yanina Carranza,a 17-year-old girl sitting in a Tegucigalpa park with two of her school friends.

Yanina says that the trip to the United States is very dangerous – some of the children never make it to the border - they suffer, die or are disappeared into the world of sex trafficking .

When asked if they would go to the United States some day, the girls said that would depend – they don’t want to go but if they can’t find a job here in Honduras, who knows .

The United States is looking to create more economic opportunity in Honduras and recently the White House announced plans to increase spending in the USAAID program for Central America. However, much of that aid is focused on rural development and helping farmers in Central America find new markets.

But the Honduran crisis of gang violence and the flight of their children to the United States is coming mainly from the urban centers. And that could require a new strategy.

The future of Honduras

The Honduran government is airing TV ads warning of the dangers of the dishonest coyotes -- human smugglers -- of Mexico. The ad says: Don’t give your child to a coyote. Because the children of Honduras are the future of Honduras.

Not all Honduran children who are cast off by their parents end up in the streets.

The lucky ones end up in places like Hogar Diamante (Diamond Home), a home for boys just outside Tegucigalpa. Here there’s room for 70 boys, where they live, go to school, take care of the farm animals, and learn a trade.

The home is supported through private donations, the selling of furniture that the boys make, and the government provides two school teachers.

Xionara Montoya is the director of the home. She says this is a safe place for the boys away from the gangs.

“(SPANISH TRANSLATION) The boys have problems of extreme poverty and with their families," Montoya says. "Many did not go to school. And they live in the street. And there are many problems in the community with the men in the gangs.

But life at the home can also be tough. The rules are strict and some of the boys have run away. Montoya says the some boys get almost a fever to find a missing father in the United States and then they are gone.

U.S. efforts in Central America

The goal now of the United States government is to reduce push factors in Central American nations by creating more economic opportunity.

"First is that we've been working with the governments in Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras, as well as with the Mexican government, from the beginning of this increase in migration," said Ricardo Zuniga, the senior director for western hemisphere affairs in the National Security Council. "And in all cases what we've found is a high level of interest in working with us because they understand the humanitarian nature of what it is that we're trying to do. And the fact that we're all interested, first and foremost, in preventing the dangerous migration of children, particularly as we've seen an increase in children under 12 years of age. They all have an interest in making sure that their citizens are well cared for."

Generally most of the U.S. aid going to Central America has been for fighting the drug war. Mexican drug cartels have set up shop in Honduras and are using the nation as a way station between Colombia and the United States, where the drugs are bought and consumed.

The other area of focus for U.S. aid has been successful in work on rural development and helping farmers in Central America find new markets.

And for those who object to U.S. foreign aid being spent in Central America, consider the math and evaluate which is more cost effective:

On one hand is the cost of supporting a multi-billion-dollar border patrol, along with immigration detention facilities, deportation flights and a immigration court system. On the other hand is the cost of developing the economy and institutions in the country of origin and solving the humanitarian crisis at its source.

Standing outside a Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol detention facility where a thousand children were being housed, South Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar said he was looking for those answers.

“And the Border Patrol – the strong men and women who are securing the border – they said, 'We cannot enforce ourselves out of this crisis.' So if they think just putting more border patrol is going to solve the problem; it’s not,” Cuellar says.

Cuellar wants more federal resources for border security and he wants the State Department to take Central American issues more seriously. By putting more development dollars into Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala the U.S. could relieve some of the push factors there. It would be cheaper and more effective.

“Where is the attention of the United States? It’s not south," Cuellar says. "They think that all we have to do is play defense on the one yard line, which is the U.S.-Mexico border right here. This is what it means when we play defense on the one yard line. We’re seeing this right here behind me."

The shining city on a hill

So what’s next for this crisis? Despite U.S. efforts to deliver a message to the people of Honduras and other Central American nations that the journey is dangerous and they will be turned back, the flow of children is showing no signs of slowing down.

The United States is a shining city on a hill, just as President Ronald Reagan called the nation in his 1984 acceptance of the Republican Party nomination and in his 1989 farewell speech to the nation.

But the phrase has a history deeper than that. It was Puritan John Winthrop's 1630 sermon: A Model of Christian Charity.

Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be "as a city upon a hill," watched by the world.

He wanted the Puritan community in New England to set an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world. But if they failed the colony’s actions would also be witnessed by the rest of the world.

Why are the children of Central America coming to the U.S. border: Because America is a shining city on a hill and we invited them. The question is now: What will the world witness now that the crisis is on our doorstep?

Credit David Martin Davies / TPR News
TPR News
A rooftop view of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Statistics on Honduras

Honduras is the murder capital of the world. According to a 2012 United Nation’s report there were 90 homicides for every 100,000 people. In the United States that stat is 6.4 homicides per one hundred.

And in Honduras the statistic means in this nation of 8 million people as many as 20 people are killed there every day.

The day after I arrived, the U.S. State Department renewed its travel warning for Honduras, saying crime and violence remain critically high. The State Department noted that Honduras has had the world's highest murder rate since 2010 and that the government lacks the resources to address the issue.

The warning pointed out that the Honduran police have been known to take part in such crimes as murder and car theft, and the police force does not have enough cars or gasoline to respond to reports of violent crime.

The warning did say that the Honduran government has increased police presence at main tourist sites, such as resorts and the Copan Mayan ruins, but visitors are at risk of murder, robbery, and attacks elsewhere, including the large cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa.

Honduras is also the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. According to the World Bank, 70% of the population live in poverty and 36% live in extreme poverty. That means severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation and shelter.

Honduras is also the top nation for the killing of journalists. There was a military coup here five years ago and since then there have been many crackdowns on human rights. Reporters who have bravely written or broadcasts negative reports about the current regime and about the issues surrounding indigenous people being forced out of their ancestral land have been kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi