Editor’s Note: Some of the specific names and details in this article have been changed to protect the sources’ security.
After facing weeks of outrage and pressure, President Trump’s administration agreed to halt the practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, part of its “zero tolerance” policy. This decision puts a limit on one of the cruelest manifestations of U.S. immigration policy. While this was a hopeful outcome, there were a number of troubling silences in the public debates on childhood separation. Immigration enforcement agencies, for example, had long been separating families as they enforce deportations—a history left out of most mainstream media accounts of the acute crisis on the border in May and June.
Despite moments of intense controversy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) generally has wide latitude to treat unauthorized immigrants as criminals, a Trumpian outcome to a process that has been long unfolding. As Part I of this series documented, immigration policy under Trump has deepened and expanded the criminalization of unauthorized immigrants, leading to the deportation of people who have lived for years in the United States with no criminal record other than their immigration infractions. Alejandra Contreras, a 45 year-old Honduran deportee who lived in Michigan, was one such case. After 13 years in the United States, she was forced to return to Honduras with two of her young children, both U.S. citizens, while leaving behind her 25-year old son and three grandchildren.
In deporting Alejandra, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) denied the broader consequences of its decision, such as the trauma inflicted on Alejandra’s children—an important concern raised in the debates on separating families at the border. ICE’s enforcement apparatus also failed to address the context in Honduras, including not only what “returning” to Honduras might mean for Alejandra and her daughters, but also the consequences of deporting massive numbers of people to the country and the fact that the country has a repressive, right-wing government backed by the United States.
Such blindness permeates the entire immigration enforcement apparatus, reverberating far beyond the borders of the United States, with particularly significant consequences in Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In these countries, U.S. immigration policies continue to leave indelible marks on both migrants and deportees, while fortifying the militarized, national security initiatives that guide U.S. policies in the region. Alejandra’s journey to the United States and her deportation back to Honduras have been invariably shaped by these elements of U.S. immigration enforcement.
Between Honduras and the United States
When ICE ordered Alejandra’s deportation, they gave her six days to leave the country. During that time, in September of 2017, the Trump administration announced its decision to not renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a decision that is now held up in the courts. Alejandra’s eldest child, Felipe, is a DACA recipient. Although he is married to a U.S. citizen and has four children of his own, he nonetheless depends on DACA for certain crucial rights, including a work permit.
Alejandra’s time in the United States was coming to an unnerving end. She was going to take her daughters to Honduras, while her son and grandchildren faced an uncertain, more precarious future in Michigan. For Felipe, the deportation was a blow to his family’s well-being, as Alejandra had long provided crucial childcare and financial support.
The separation of Alejandra’s family by way of her deportation undermined what Alejandra had worked for in coming to the United States. As she indicated to me, she migrated in 2004 seeking “a better life” for Felipe and her family. At the time, her husband, Ignacio, already lived in the United States, and Alejandra wanted her family united. Alejandra had thought of buying a house in Honduras, but job prospects were bleak, schools were underfunded, and crime and street violence were on the rise.
Getting to the United States was expensive and dangerous, however, especially with a nine-year-old child. Alejandra and Ignacio scrambled to save enough money so that she and Felipe could afford the trip through northern Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. It cost them nearly $10,000 USD, but the expense seemed worth it. They believed that spending this money would ensure their coyote would be trustworthy and help them avoid the most dangerous aspects of the journey. They traveled in a small group and were able to avoid riding on la bestia (“the beast”), the infamous cargo trains that Ignacio had previously ridden on his journey north and are well-known for rapes, robberies, kidnappings, and accidents, from lost limbs to death.
In the end, Alejandra and Felipe had no major incidents in their 15-day journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. Their journey across was harrowing, however, involving a difficult night of walking in a mountainous desert region of West Texas. They crossed in the kind of remote area that has seen a sharp increase in migrant traffic since the early 1990s as U.S. Border Patrol Agents have fortified urban areas of the border and “official ports of entry” in order to funnel migrants into more remote, treacherous zones.
While no one knows the exact number, between the mid-1990s and 2015 somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 migrants died while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Such tragic deaths continue and are a deliberate part of of U.S. policy, even as they evoke little public sympathy. Such deaths have not, for example, been a point of discussion in the family separation controversy.
Yet immigration enforcement has only become broader and more menacing since Alejandra’s trip to the United States in 2004. Every president since Ronald Reagan has increased spending and manpower in border and immigration security. In 2017, federal immigration enforcement funding stood at $24.3 billion, a 15-fold increase since the early 1990s.
Nonetheless, a focus on an increase in immigration enforcement inside the United States tells only part of the story. Far beyond the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration enforcement regimes have expanded into Mexico and Central America. The Mexican government, for example, under pressure from the Obama administration, has fortified its southern border with Guatemala and made travelling through Mexico more dangerous for migrants, as NACLA has reported in the past. At the same time, a sophisticated human-trafficking trade that barely existed before the 1980s has expanded, with increasing police collusion in Mexico and in the Northern Triangle.
For her part, Alejandra has not considered attempting to return to the United States since her deportation to Honduras. The journey both costs more and is more dangerous then it was in 2004, a long-term process that has fundamentally changed how Latin Americans, particularly from Mexico, come to the United States. Before the 1980s, most Latin American migrants to the United States journeyed back and forth, a pattern that the militarization of the border has made nearly impossible.
For now, Alejandra will wait out the ten years that she is prohibited, as a deportee, from re-entering the country legally. Her eldest daughter, a U.S. citizen, will then be 21, and will be able to help her mother apply for citizenship, provided that current law regarding familial sponsorship holds. That will be the only path for Alejandra, especially if the changes that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced, in which fleeing gang and criminal violence, in addition to sexual assaults and domestic abuse, will no longer be grounds for asylum.
In Honduras, A Precarious Return
Like so many immigrants, Alejandra’s life straddles the border, one made up of both formative connections and violently enforced boundaries. Fortunately, her connections in Honduras helped cushion the blow when she arrived. Upon landing in Honduras, Alejandra and her daughters travelled to La Ceiba, a northern coastal city in Honduras, where Alejandra’s cousin had agreed to let the three of them stay with her family. Alejandra has not yet been able to afford to find her own place.
Initially, Alejandra had hoped that her experience working legally in the United States in a processing plant for automobile parts supplies from Mexico would be an advantage in her search for work. But such jobs were in short supply in La Ceiba. Alejandra also considered opening a small business selling everyday goods and groceries, yet start-up costs were prohibitively expensive, especially as she would need to have store space and a gang would charge a so-called “war tax” on her business. As of this writing, Alejandra remains unemployed.
Friends and relatives from the United States have been sending what they can, but Alejandra had been a crucial financial support for many of them. She had also sent critical remittances to her mother. Alejandra’s deportation put a strain on not only her own finances, but also family members and close friends in both the United States and Honduras.
Such consequences are somehow beyond the realm of concern for immigration enforcement. If these polices are thus inhumane, they are also shortsighted. Mass deportations to Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico will reduce the flow of remittances from the United States. This phenomenon, in addition to the Trump administration’s decisions to revoke Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians, El Salvadorans, and Hondurans, will cause serious harm. Remittances form 19.5% of GDP in Honduras, 18.3% in El Salvador, and 11.5% in Guatemala. More than 90% of these remittances come from the United States. One study found that the end of TPS for El Salvador will lead to a 2% reduction in that country’s GDP. Applying the same methodology, it will lead to a 1% reduction in Honduras.
Of course, this would not be the first time that deportations from the United States have wreaked havoc in the Northern Triangle. The mass deportation of gang members from MS-13 and Barrio-18 to El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1990s was a critical factor in the transnational proliferation of these gangs, including in Honduras. Such crucial points of historical context, however, are areas of further silence in current debates on immigration.
Immigration Enforcement and Militarization in Honduras
Today, U.S. policies toward Honduras and the other Northern Triangle countries purport to address “the main push factors of migration, through improving citizen security, reducing extreme poverty, and improving public administration through transparency and accountability reforms,” as USAID puts it. Yet this focus on immigration continues to play out within the context of the militarization and economic liberalization of the Northern Triangle. This process has developed in lockstep with U.S. policy in the region, most recently via the U.S.-backed Alliance for Prosperity.
A central justification for U.S. policy in the Northern Triangle today is “citizen security,” a rationalization that resonates with how the United States and its allies have fought the Cold War and the “war on drugs” in the region. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that concerns of citizen security have led successive U.S. administration to back repressive, right-wing governments in Honduras. This first occurred in the Obama administration’s tacit support for a 2009 military coup and then in the 2017 presidential elections.
Last year, the incumbent president from the National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, maintained his grip on power after reversing a constitutional ban on running for subsequent terms and then winning a fraudulent election. As in 2009, a conservative coalition made up of pro-business groups, military leaders, and powerful Catholic and evangelical interests seized power by overturning the democratic process. In both cases, the government responded to street protests with a violent crackdown. In the two months following the November 2017 election, military and police forces killed at least 30 protestors.
As in 2009, government spokespersons and the National Party cast protestors as criminal and subversive. The mainstream press—largely controlled by business interests friendly to the government—followed suit, depicting the protests as the actions of out-of-control mobs, linked to criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and leftists. Hernández supporters also focused attention on the death of a police officer. This kind of reaction followed a script: Hernández had long cast himself as a tough defender of law-and-order, protecting the country from mortal threats.
The stance that Hernández and the National Party adopted found support in the Trump administration. Hernández and Trump share a nationalist, right-wing, and pro-business ideology, and are both deeply committed to the militarized solutions of the “war on drugs” and immigration enforcement. As the protests unfolded, John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff, publicly praised Hernández, recalling his time working with him from 2012 to 2016 as the head of the U.S. Southern Command, the body in charge of defense operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Trump administration also said that the electoral results and certified that the human rights situation had improved overall in Honduras in 2017.
U.S. support played a key role in allowing the Hernández government to ride out the protests and overcome international opposition. The Honduran government is still authorized to collect approximately $50 million in military hardware from the United States, while it also received close to $105 million in fiscal year 2017 in U.S. aid, $20 million of which has been earmarked for security. This isn’t to mention the Soto Cano Air Base, a nominally Honduran facility that houses 1,200 U.S. soldiers and has been a center of U.S. operations in Central America since the 1980s.
For its part, the Hernández government continues to unleash the Honduran security forces. There has been a recent, relative reduction in the crime and murder rates in Honduras, even as its murder rate remains among the highest in the world. Yet fortifying the Honduran security forces and businesses interests has also facilitated corruption and enabled widespread human rights abuses. Labor activists, human rights advocates, and environmentalists have been the principal targets—the same groups that oppose the National Party’s platform of conservative social values and unfettered capitalist and extractivist expansion.
In this context, U.S. efforts to reduce out-migration from Honduras will backfire. As in the Cold War and the “war on drugs,” the focus on security and enforcement has fortified an authoritarian government, foreclosed possibilities for reform, facilitated human rights abuses, and heightened mistrust and fear. As they have in the past, these dynamics have pushed Hondurans to leave their country—and will continue to do so.
For Alejandra and her daughters, the intense street protests and the government crackdown had a more immediate effect. For nearly two months, they stayed almost exclusively at home, as venturing out was too dangerous and schools had been closed. Life has subsequently returned to a more normal routine. But Alejandra still constantly worries about crime. She also generally hides the fact that she came back from the United States, lest acquaintances seek the kinds of gifts and resources that long-term residence in the north often includes. In a darker vein, Alejandra and her daughters could become targets for kidnapping, robbery, or extortion, distressingly common fates for returnees and deportees. The family, as Alejandra puts it, largely lives a life “closed in the house, with little contact with anyone outside.”
They seek to avoid an environment of oppression, fear, and conflict, in which the Honduran government relies on force to suppress movements for reform and democratization, with critical support from the U.S. government. Of course, however, they can’t avoid this environment. On a basic level, they live with the consequences of immigration enforcement policies everyday, forms of ongoing punishment for Alejandra’s 2004 attempt to migrate.
From one troubling perspective, Alejandra has been lucky: an increasing number of deportees have literally been sent to their deaths at the hands of gangs or abusive partners. In whatever case, however, immigration enforcement networks and bodies are becoming only more powerful. Their spread has been fortified by both the xenophobia of the Trump administration and the ongoing notion that militarized solutions should drive the response to immigration and security from the Northern Triangle to the United States. The inhumane consequences of this toxic mix are becoming increasingly visible, as in the separation of children from their parents at the border. Yet much more needs to be made both visible and intolerable, from the roles that the United States continues to play in out-migration from countries like Honduras to the effects of U.S. immigration policies on deportees such as Alejandra.
Edward Murphy is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University and the author of For a Proper Home: Housing Rights in the Margins of Urban Chile (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015).