Translation updated and corrected 10:17 a.m.
The historic influx of illegal immigrants from Central America is caused primarily by the high demand for illicit drugs in the United States, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said Thursday.
"If you look at the root of the problem, you’ll realize that your country has enormous responsibility for this," Hernandez said in an interview with The Washington Post -- one of the only few extended conversations he had with American news outlets during his visit this week to Washington.
Hernandez and the leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador are scheduled to meet Friday with President Obama, Vice President Biden and members of Congress to discuss the mass migration of Central Americans to the United States, many of whom are young, unaccompanied minors.
Drug trafficking to the United States "generates violence, reduces opportunities, generates migration because this is where there’s the largest consumption of drugs. And we’re on the route," he said. Raging drug violence in Honduras "is leaving us with such an enormous loss of life, and young people, generations of young people that we have lost because they entered the world of drugs. What is being done in the U.S. on the topic of drugs?"
He suggested later that American officials believe that drugs "is a health problem. For us, it’s a matter of life and death, and that’s not fair. What’s fair is that we work together dealing with our own responsibilities."
(Watch video of the interview below or here)
Hernandez said that his government has been told by U.S. officials to expect a steady return of Honduran migrants in the coming weeks. As they return, Hondurans "arrive with pain in their broken hearts" -- because they have been returned and because they feel cheated by human smugglers who collected thousands of dollars for an ultimately unsuccessful trip north.
Currently, two groups of migrants are being returned three times per week, he said. One group is flown from the United States to Honduras, while another wave comes by bus from Mexico and Guatemala.
"From Mexico, they come in buses, in big numbers. We’ve had to triple the size of our centers in order to receive these people. They’re coming en masse, but we’ve said that we need to be careful in order to respect their human rights," he said.
During the interview, Hernandez was shown recent photos of young children and women who have been held in facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border. Asked whether he thought Central American immigrants are being treated properly in those facilities, he said: "At the first area along the border, I think they need to be treated better. But when they move on into the air bases or shelters, with more commodities, they’re in better condition. But, what good is it to be in a golden cage, if you don’t have your freedom? Or if you’re not free?"
"That’s why we need to have a fair process so that judges are watching out for the rights of kids, to reunite, and if then there’s nothing that protects them, then we’re here to receive them. With all our flaws, but we’re going to receive them," he said.
Asked about Americans who believe that illegal immigrants should be returned to their home country as soon as possible, Hernandez sought to remind skeptics that the recent immigration wave has more to do with humanity than politics.
"Look, I’m a family man. And I would say that the important thing is for people to look into their conscious and to think like a father who’s here and wants to see their child. Or a mother who hasn’t seen their child in 12 years. It should be human point of view, first of all," he said.
A full transcript of the interview, which was conducted primarily in Spanish, is below. It has been translated and edited for clarity:
Question: You’re here in Washington for meetings with President Obama, Vice President Biden and members of Congress. How would you assess how the U.S. government is handling this crisis? Is the U.S. responding appropriately?
Hernandez: First we need to establish that this is a humanitarian crisis. I think that we can do more, what we’re doing is not sufficient. That’s why we’re here. I’ve spoken with the presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador and we’ve put together a blueprint for a plan, a plan that would take the same route that once was an alliance of progress that the U.S. launched in South America, something similar to what Colombia did with the United States, Mexico and the United States.
And I would say those two plans were successful, but it moved the phenomena of drugs into Central America. And now, for us, it’s a big topic of many lives involved, more than ever in the history of the country, in the last decade.
Q: So you want a plan similar to those that Mexico and Colombia had with the United States to combat drug trafficking. People here in Washington will say that’s fine, but your government needs to show that It’s doing something to solve this crisis.
Hernandez: That’s the sad part of this for us, that there’s so little information in the United States about what we’re doing.
Q: Well, what are you doing then?
Hernandez: In the last presidency I was the president of Congress. One of the biggest problems has been the drug trafficking through Central America, particularly in Honduras where narco leaders from Mexico and Colombia set up camp, because of the two plans we just mentioned. We decided to work with the United States in the process to extradite Hondurans who’ve been involved in these crimes and because this would be a powerful persuasion. Well, we modified the constitution to begin with. We have already extradited the first Honduran. There are four capture orders in process right now. But either way, we are checking every justice operator, and they’re being put through tests of confidence. That had never happened in Honduras.
As a result of a series of measures we’ve taken, we now have judges, prosecutors, police officers, and military judges, because the problem was that the criminal organizations had penetrated the institution.
Another thing that we have done is create a task force that focuses on the migrant, which is being led by my wife. She came to the U.S. to visit the kids in the border, to surround herself with information about the crisis. We’re using our own resources like never before, tending to them with medics, with psychologists, giving them the opportunity to have access to jobs in the fields, as well as in the city. We have created incentive programs of production in the fields, and these programs are available to them. At the same time, [we have] the entire social offers from the government, to guarantee or support our presence in the borders with Guatemala, El Salvador.
For the first time, in one month we captured two leaders of human smuggling gangs. That’s never happened before. But we had to close our migration office because it was full of people working for the organized criminals. And now, we have created a new office that is producing important results. But equally, Honduras can put forth the effort, and we’ll continue doing it because we want to resolve the problem. But the problem is of such magnitude, that we need the U.S. to understand that this is a shared responsibility, but differentiated, and at the same time, that leaders in Washington understand this: If Central America lives in peace, if Central America reduces violence caused by drugs, if it’s a place of opportunity, it will be a great investment for the United States and there won’t be any more cost.
Q: Can you ensure that Hondurans deported back to your country will be treated safely and that people deported back to your country will get economic, education and health services if they come back?
Hernandez: I would like to invite you to come so that you can see our central attention facility that we have. They arrive with pain in their broken hearts, but also these are people that are in debt with the coyotes (human traffickers) before coming here, they sold everything.
So we receive them, we give them spiritual guidance with help from the church. We explain to them the opportunities they have with the social welfare programs we offer. We give them economic support when we know for sure that they will return to their homes, and if not, we’ll help them for a little bit. But we also explain why it’s not a good idea that they try to go back [to the United States].
Question: And why isn’t a good idea?
Hernandez: Because of the big risk and danger of everything. I think that the people who don’t know those areas, don’t know all the risks of the migration routes, and don’t realize that they’ll live their life that way, on the lookout for your son. Many children are lost along the way.
Question: So your government is telling people not to go? That it’s dangerous?
Hernandez: We have a public campaign, using our resources, like one we’ve never had before telling people why it’s not a good idea. And to make sure that they don’t get fooled by the coyotes.
And this is something that I hope you can help me with – because you guys know some of the American leaders: There’s been some ambiguity, an absence of clarity in the political debate about immigration politics about the benefit of the coyotes, and how they say to families that they can bring their children here. Or that if they come with a kid in their hands, a kid without parents here, they can get in. So we need to make sure that every Honduran and every Central American understands the reality. But it needs to be clear. Honduras also launched an international conference in Tegucigalpa to dig deeper into this topic. The United Nations, UNICEF, the OAS, CELAC, CICA, Europe, there also people from here, from the U.S., a lot of people came. And these efforts will help us, so the magnitude of the problem is understood, and decision can be made.
Question: What has the United States government told you about plans to deport Hondurans? Have they said to expect hundreds? Thousands?
Hernandez: Well, right now Congress is considering one side, one possible reform to quickly solve this. Others are saying that it might take a little longer but that the immigrants need to return. In large quantities.
My response has been, and will continue to be: Number one, first of all, you have to be concerned about the interests of the children, in the rights of parents and children to reunite. It’s a human right that goes far beyond the legislatures of countries. But in what way, if families exist according to the laws, the United States doesn’t have the right to assist. And if they need to return to Honduras, we are ready to receive them and help them like countrymen.
Question: But have they told you to expect hundreds? Thousands?
Hernandez: The quantity is important, but, we’ve also said …..
Question: Well, how many have come this week?
Hernandez: There are two groups arriving three times per week. One group from the United States and another from Guatemalan and another one from Mexico.
Question: Three separate flights?
Hernandez: No, from Mexico, they come in buses, in big numbers. We’ve had to triple the size of our centers in order to receive these people. They’re coming en masse, but we’ve said that we need to be careful in order to respect their human rights.
Question: [He is handed copies of recent news pictures of immigrants in detention facilities along the border:] You’ve seen people in these facilities – when you look at these, what do you think?
Hernandez: That it is not just treatment.
Question: Do you think the United States is treating them properly?
Hernandez: At the first area along the border, I think they need to be treated better. But when they move on into the air bases or shelters, with more commodities, they’re in better condition. But, what good is it to be in a golden cage, if you don’t have your freedom? Or if you’re not free?
That’s why we need to have a fair process so that judges are watching out for the rights of kids, to reunite, and if then, there’s nothing that protects them, then we’re here to receive them. With all our weaknesses (flaws), but we’re going to receive them.
Question: When you look at these pictures, these are Hondurans, your people. What do you think?
Hernandez: Well, I told you, it’s a humanitarian tragedy. That’s why my government mandated that this phenomenon is a humanitarian crisis. And that’s why I’ve said that this cannot stay uniquely within the context of Central America, and the United States. This is a human crisis. If this happened in Europe, Asia or Africa, it’s a human tragedy that shouldn’t happen. That’s why we have to work together. And you the reporters, we ask that you help to explain what’s happening there and here, and what’s being done here and there be known so the American people could educate their leaders, or have the leaders make decisions, but we can’t continue the way it’s going.
Question: There are many Americans who are upset about this, who say the United States shouldn’t have to pay for this crisis, that Central American nations should be doing whatever they can to keep their citizens. What is your message to Americans who say this isn’t our problem?
Hernandez: Look, I’m a family man. And I would say that the important thing is for people to look into their conscious and to think like a father who’s here and wants to see their child. Or a mother who hasn’t seen their child in 12 years. It should be human point of view, first of all.
Secondly, if you look at the root of the problem, you’ll realize that your country has enormous responsibility for this. The problems of narco trafficking, it generates violence, reduces opportunities, generates migration because this is where there’s the largest consumption of drugs. And we’re on the route. And what happens when there’s such a high demand of drugs? Over in Honduras the gangs and the narcos are clashing, and now they fight over territory, and who’s going to move the drugs, they fight over who’s going to take the money from the other one. And that’s leaving us with such an enormous loss of life, and young people, generations of young people that we have lost because they entered the world of drugs. What is being done in the U.S. on the topic of drugs?
Investigate it and you’ll see it. Here, many officials say it’s a health problem. For us, it’s a matter of life and death, and that’s not fair. What’s fair is that we work together dealing with our own responsibilities.
Jeff Simon and Randolph Smith contributed to this report.