Deportees' Bittersweet Homecoming
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Almost every day, another unmarked jet from Houston lands at the international airport in this Central American capital and disgorges a new batch of deportees from U.S. immigration custody. More than 1,800 this month. More than 13,700 since January.
The passengers file out uncertainly, pausing to grab the paper or plastic bags holding their few belongings, and enter a low building with a sign that says: "Welcome Home, Brothers." There are weary-looking older workers, scowling young men with tattoos, a handful of women. They wear clean prison uniforms or the grimy clothes in which they were caught.
Those who found menial jobs in the United States say they sent far more money home than they could ever earn in Honduras, but most say they were caught within days of sneaking across the border and have returned with empty pockets. Two out of three say they intend to try again.
"The immigration van caught us after we walked for three days across the desert in Arizona," says Matias Miranda, 42, an illiterate farmer who just made his second attempt to enter the United States in search of work. "I was getting older and I wanted to try once more, to help my children. But already I am back without a single peso. All I got was this Bible, and I still have the one they gave me last time."
Illegal migration is a crucial safety valve for Honduras, a chronically poor country of 7.5 million where 40 percent of the populace earns less than $3 a day and just over half the workforce has a sixth-grade education. Money sent directly to Honduran families from relatives working in the United States, both legally and illegally, provides nearly one-third of the national income -- $1.8 billion in 2005, $2.3 billion last year.
Over the past several years, however, the pace of deportations from the United States has skyrocketed as the U.S. Border Patrol has beefed up operations. In 2005, 18,941 Hondurans were deported; in 2006, 24,643 were deported; and by mid-June 2007, the figure had exceeded 13,700. There have been similar increases in deportations from Mexico and Guatemala, which Hondurans must cross before they reach the United States.
The current debate over immigration reform in the United States, where an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live, has caused hope and anxiety here, because it holds out both the promise of legalizing tens of thousands of Hondurans now in the United States and the threat of a harsher crackdown near the border, which about 90,000 Hondurans attempt to cross illegally each year.
Meanwhile, the steady rise in deportations is met here with a mixture of alarm and relief. Officials worry that the current flow of cash remittances to families -- expected to reach a record $2.8 billion this year -- will start to lessen and that the economy will not be able to absorb a sustained influx of jobless returnees.
On the other hand, Honduran society has paid a high price for this economic antidote. Experts here say illegal immigration destroys families during long separations and lures fatherless youths to crime and gangs. It also fosters dependency on handouts from abroad and a tendency to fritter cash windfalls on luxury goods.
"Honduras today survives on remittances, but mass migration also causes enormous damage," said Julio Velásquez, an official of the Honduran National Human Rights Commission. "Those who manage to reach the U.S. can lift their families a little out of poverty, but often the families fall apart and the kids end up in gangs or on drugs. We need to create the conditions so people don't need to leave, instead of thinking of migration as something to admire."
Darío Cardona, the deputy minister of labor, said a variety of factors have contributed to the exodus. The minimum wage here is only $3.50 a day, and many Hondurans earn far less as seasonal field hands or street vendors. Although the economy is growing and inflation is down, Cardona said, progress has been hampered by corruption, poor public education and lack of investment.
"The poor who leave subsidize the poor who stay," he said. "Depending on other countries is a short-term help for us, but it is not a long-term solution. Our country is exporting its youth and its labor force, and after a few years many of them come back with nothing."