Really, they’re kids. Some set out on incredible journeys on their own. Others were helped by families who took on huge debts -- US$4,000 to US$6,000 -- to hire a coyote. When their children are caught at the border, and returned, the debt remains. The road to the US is littered with bodies. The journey often involves riding a freight train called El Bestia. Gangs prey on migrants. Imagine the desperation of parents who send their children on such a journey.
Canadians should understand the impulse to seek a better life. About 96 percent of us come from somewhere else. Those days are gone. Even as trade agreements removed barriers so capital and goods could move freely between countries, workers weren’t allowed the same freedom. They were trapped.
It makes sense for a Honduran kid to gamble on the journey to the US. They have seen the benefits -- almost 20 percent of GDP is money sent home by foreign workers, mostly in the US, mostly illegal. Everyone knows friends or family members who have made the trip. (And everyone knows people who have started the journey and never been heard from again.) The US is trying to turn back the tide. It’s fighting rumors an amnesty applies to minor migrants. This week, Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson warned parents of the risks children face traveling to the US.
But the day after Johnson’s warning was released, the US State Department updated its travel advisory for Honduras. “Critically high” levels of crime and violence. Highest murder rate in the world. Corrupt police. Crimes often not even investigated and criminals operating “with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.” Narcotraffickers and gangs, “known to commit crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, armed robbery, rape, and other aggravated assaults.” Overblown, I’d say. But if that’s the official US government's position, it can not be surprised that Honduran teens are heading to America.
Escaping violence is a motivation. The gangs in the cities -- imports from the US -- kill casually. But mostly, the young migrants are looking for a chance. I was amazed by the hopefulness of Hondurans in my time there. There are few jobs, schools are bad and opportunities are desperately scarce. But people open small stores, or take courses to prepare for a job that probably doesn’t exist. Kids stay in school, sign up for trade courses. It is at once inspiring and heartbreaking. Embarking on a journey to the US is a demonstration of that hopefulness.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández tried to shift responsibility to the US. The children are war refugees, he said, driven out of their country by violence fueled by the drug trade. Americans (and Canadians) consume cocaine. Without them, the drug would not be transported through Honduras and other countries too poor to control the business. True enough. The 43-year-long “war on drugs” is a costly, destructive failure that has enriched and empowered a few -- gangs and cocaine cartels included -- and accomplished, literally, nothing while resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever.
But Honduras would be a bad place to be young even if not a single of cocaine moved through the country. Gangs and poverty and a broken society are the real problems. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it says on the Statue of Liberty. Canada embraced the same sentiments, without the poetry. Except today, we don’t want those masses to show up.
The fears about foreign workers and wages are understandable. For me, the problem is with the word “temporary.” We should welcome new citizens, not people brought here to be cheap labor and then sent home. The kids flooding the US border are risking everything for a chance at a new life. And we’re locking them up and sending them back were they came from. (7/6/14) (photo courtesy Internet)
Note: The author is a former journalist from Canada. He currently lives in the town of Copán Ruinas, Honduras, and volunteers with Cuso International, a Canadian development agency that matches skilled professionals to organizations in developing countries. He writes a blog called Paying Attention.