Last week I had a brief, surprising moment of agreement with President Trump. He described the situation of Central American asylum seekers at the US/México border as a humanitarian crisis – “a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.” I recognized that as a profound truth. Unfortunately, we do not share the same understanding of who is in crisis, and why. I recently visited the origin of the Honduran human ‘caravan,’ so I share here some insights arising from that trip, and what they mean to me as a US citizen. I suggest that the US shares more responsibility than we think for the pressures faced by asylum seekers.
First, some perspective: the US does face challenges, but there is no evidence of an ‘immigration crisis.’ According to the US Border Protection agency, undocumented crossings at the southern border have been in decline for 20 years. The restructuring of small-group migration into caravans is new, but that does not necessarily mean that overall numbers are increasing. The notion that immigrants cause insecurity in the US has been debunked by more fact-checkers than I can count. If there is a crisis in the US, it is a crisis of politics, and a crisis of conscience as we struggle to understand the interconnectedness of our region and its people.
In November 2018, I visited San Pedro Sula, a key economic hub and the starting point of the first asylum seeker caravan. My job was to facilitate an analysis of the sociopolitical context completed by 32 local humanitarians, who use such analysis to shape their own organizational strategy. I felt anxious about my own US identity, because just as I was arriving in the caravan’s starting point, the caravan members themselves arrived at the US border and were denied the opportunity to request asylum. Making an asylum request to escape from violence and persecution is a human right recognized under US and international law, yet the US increasingly treats it as a criminal act. It was a painful moment in international relations, and I felt ashamed, yet I was welcomed generously by my Honduran colleagues.
Migration was one of several themes addressed during their context analysis. I summarize here in simple terms the complex explanations developed by Honduran humanitarians as they analyzed the greater Sula Valley. They concluded that outward migration was caused by ‘crime’ and ‘poverty,’ just as we often hear in the media. However the intensity of those two factors, and their inseparability, are not widely understood by outsiders. Also, none of the causes that the humanitarians described had originated exclusively in Honduras; the causes are embedded in the wider web of dynamics unfolding across the Americas.
First, the mild-sounding term ‘crime’ actually refers to the massive networks of organized crime, including drug traffickers and highly sophisticated street gangs, that made San Pedro Sula the most violent city in the world 4 years in a row. From 2012 to 2015, hospitals and morgues in that city registered the highest rates of non-war homicides on the planet. The death rate has improved significantly over the past 2 years due to government clampdown (despite the fact that some government players are also suspected of colluding in crime). Even so, the level of violence remains high.
This is not the kind of violence that leaves civilians alone if they simply stay out of the way. Civilians are prey. Youth gang members are not only sought, they are forcibly recruited. Families and business people are extorted for cash under threat of violence, forcing them into impossible choices. What would you do if confronted with a demand to hand over either your life savings or your eldest son? If you couldn’t support your family because your small business income was drained by extortion? If you couldn’t trust the police to help? You would probably try to flee to a safer place – and while fleeing you would be at further risk of theft, extortion and human trafficking.
These violent forces are transnational. We know – but routinely ignore – that the transit of drugs through Central America is driven by uncontrolled demand in the US. The most prominent gangs, which Trump talks about keeping out of the US, originated in Los Angeles. When Salvadoran refugees fled a 1980s civil war fueled by US policies and funds, their youth encountered an already existing petri dish of gang culture in L.A, and new fusions emerged including the Mara Salvatrucha and 18thStreet Gang. After a decade or so of learning and operating in the US, many gang members were deported in the mid-1990s to El Salvador where they began to overwhelm that country in addition to neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. (Honduras, by the way, was a US ally during the Cold War, and did its part to shelter Salvadoran refugees).
Looking at ‘poverty,’ two-thirds of Hondurans experience it, and at least one-fifth live in extreme poverty. It’s already clear that violent crime is a key source of economic vulnerability. Additionally, the transnational banana industry shaped the economics and politics of modern Honduras, and then contributed to poverty when export prices declined. Un- and underemployment are big issues, especially in the internationalized economy of the Sula Valley. The maquila industry – composed of foreign factories placed in Honduras to reduce overhead costs – is genuinely appreciated as a source of jobs. At the same time, there are not enough maquila jobs to go around, and those that do exist often come with inadequate salaries and protections. Government austerity policies, encouraged by the US-influenced International Monetary Fund to help stabilize the national economy, have the disastrous side-effect of increasing inequality. Youth who lack opportunities find it harder to resist gang recruitment.
The Hondurans caught in this perfect storm of crime and poverty are the ones in genuine ‘crisis.’ My humanitarian colleagues called it ‘desperation.’ They do not foresee the flow of asylum seekers stopping, despite the fact that the first caravan is visibly stuck, until there is a change in the underlying factors that push people to flee. They are somewhat hopeful for sensible immigration reform in the US – but they also see indifference within the US population as an obstacle to political change. They see Honduras as a country, a former US ally, finding new political allies on the international stage.
We as a US population need not be indifferent. None of the insights I’ve shared are new – though it is compelling to hear them from the perspective of Honduran humanitarians! Central American asylum seekers are not fleeing problems of their own making. They are fleeing because they bear the brunt of complex regionalized problems for which the US is partly responsible.The way to deal with a crisis in the neighborhood is by working together for the wellbeing of all the neighbors. México is taking a creative policy lead, considering proposals for a managed increase in asylum plus major regional investments in human security and economic development. Let’s see if we as a US constituency can push our own politicians to catch up.
 For example: The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant, New York Times, 30 March 2018.
 The banana industry is a brutal story of economic and political manipulation driven by the US-based United Fruit Company. For perspective: How US Policy Created the Refugee Crisis in Central America, Citizen Truth, 1 Nov. 2018.