SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — They are coming to America because a good job here means sewing underwear in a sweatshop for $47 a week.
They are leaving neighborhoods where you can walk down block after block of abandoned houses spray-painted with gang graffiti, with collapsed roofs and jungle plants sprouting in the living rooms.
They are traveling 1,400 miles with hardly any luggage from a bus station controlled by an extortion ring and used for trafficking women and contraband cigarettes; last Thursday the Honduran military police deployed 200 officers to break up the ring.
“We are not going to stop sending people, and you guys are not going to be able to stop them from getting in,” said Lt. Col. Reyes Garcia, one of the officers leading the bus station operation. “You cannot focus on just one reason that people want to leave for the United States.”
President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to manage the humanitarian crisis of tens of thousands of Central Americans, many of them children, who have overwhelmed Border Patrol facilities and reopened the national debate about how to handle the pressures of immigration. In this city, home to the largest number of child migrants apprehended at the U.S. border so far this year, there has not been any dramatic new spike in violence or fresh economic catastrophe. Rather, it’s been all the old exhausting problems, plus the more recent perception that the United States is allowing children to stay if they can make it across the Rio Grande, that have intensified the exodus.
“At its core, it is a drama of poverty,” said Romulo Emiliani, the bishop in San Pedro Sula. “To people here, the United States is a paradise.”
Three days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday — white buses pull up to a red cinder-block wall downtown and deposit hundreds of people who have failed to reach that paradise. At the government-run shelter for children and families, these people who have been apprehended by Mexican authorities and deported by bus are fed and registered and then must decide whether to give up or make another attempt. The shelter is a desperate roil of anxiety. Children wander around the concrete courtyard barefoot and in diapers. Their parents spontaneously break into tears.
“Do you know why people migrate there? Do you know? Because there is no work here. There is no work,” said Ana Patricia Mejia, 39, who had tried to make the trip with her kids and her neighbor’s son but was deported from Mexico. “Of course I am going again. I have to have a house. I do not have a place to live. If I want to or not, if the gringos like it or not, I am coming.”
Waldina Lizeth Amaya, a 37-year-old mother of four, decided to take her children to America after failing to find a job at the local factories. In the past, she had worked illegally in a restaurant in Mexico and for several years in Honduras in a factory making bras and panties.
“I looked all over. I brought my papers to various companies. I have experience, and I couldn’t find anything,” she said at the shelter.
Many migrants have relatives already living in the United States. Lizeth had two cousins in Dallas, so last month she decided to risk bringing her family to join them. The timing of her decision was partly based on inaccurate but widespread rumors that the U.S. government was offering amnesty for Central American children.
“Many people are saying the U.S. has approved a law to receive children,” she said. “The U.S. is an advanced country, and I want my children to study there. I want them to have a better life. That’s the main reason.”
The Obama administration has tried to dispel the notion that officials are welcoming migrants, and that message has started to circulate here. The lead headline on a recent issue of La Prensa newspaper blared: “Obama: Do not send more undocumented children to the U.S. President affirms that minors will be deported.” The United States already deports Honduran adults — two flights carrying up to 135 passengers each arrive every weekday at the San Pedro Sula airport — and the administration has discussed deporting more children.
Parts of San Pedro Sula, with glistening shopping malls and streets of Nike stores, Office Depots and fast-food restaurants, don’t feel out of the ordinary in Latin America. But there are neighborhoods where it’s easier to see what it means to endure years of gang warfare and one of the highest murder rates in the world. In Chamelecon, more than 300 houses have been abandoned, and military police in body armor patrol day and night on Honda dirt bikes. The two main gangs, 18th Street and MS-13, have fought over the area for years, commandeering houses and demanding that residents pay a war tax.
“They bleed you,” said Alvin Rolando Baide, 34, who grew up in the neighborhood. “They demand 80 or 90 percent of your salary.”
“They go from house to house and threaten the residents. You have to pay them or you have a limited amount of time before they’ll occupy your house.”
Rolando, who has five children, has tried to migrate in the past but didn’t make it. He earns a better-than-average salary, more than $500 a month, selling beef and pork from a truck, enough to stay afloat but not to save much. In his neighborhood, he said, many children don’t aspire to study because education often does not guarantee any greater income, while the gangs are willing to pay kids to be lookouts.
“I think the government of the U.S. should lend us a hand,” he said. “The few sources of work here are not enough. We are so many, and we are hungry.”
There are different ways to make the journey. Those with money, often raised by relatives living in the United States, can pay between $4,000 and $8,000 per person for guides to escort them in cars north across Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. border. Others attempt the journey by bus or cross Mexico on top of a train known as the Beast. The trip can involve days of walking and risks of gang and cartel violence, rape, kidnapping, and theft.
One guide for migrants, a former Honduran military officer, said that he charges $6,500 per person, half paid here and the other half in Houston when the migrants reach their destination. He said that he and other guides pay off police and immigration officials in Mexico and Guatemala to grease the passage, which usually takes about 15 days. He pays for food and lodging in hotels and safe houses for the migrants and works with a large network of others.
“We haven’t had many problems,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the illegal process. “Almost everybody makes it there.”