The most dangerous walk

The unfinished gray of the adobe walls peeked over the crest. To the right, the ground fell away to a breathtaking view of Honduran mountain ranges and lush valleys of coffee plants, corn, beans, trees.

At this point, 1,400 meters above sea level, a family had been pushed to the edge.

My day began with an hour drive north from La Unión, a town of 13,000 in the Honduran highlands wholly dependent on the region’s coffee production.

Gilberto, our guide for the day from Aldea Development, marveled at the driving skills of Jo Ann Van Engen, co-founder of the Association for a More Just Society Honduras and translator for the ensuing conversations.

In his rubber work boots, Carlos walked up as his wife, Rosa Maria, welcomed us into their humble home. Their adorable 5-year old daughter, Fabiola, played with a National Immigration Forum pen I gave her.

Earlier this summer, after consecutive years of low coffee yields, lower prices and even lower levels of rainfall, they decided Carlos would leave for the US with their seven-year old daughter. They traded their home, which they had painstakingly built over the years of good coffee harvests, and their coffee-producing land, for a car. Which was collateral to pay a coyote $8,000.

Carlos, Rosa Maria and Fabiola

After being stranded in Guatemala for two weeks, they eventually made it to the US-Mexico border. I asked Carlos, “Did you apply for asylum?” His eyes ever so slightly narrowed. He looked down.

“I told the truth. I am poor. I want to work.”

In fact, he had a roofing job in Tennessee lined up. Parenthetically, Middle Tennessee State University reported last fall there were nearly six jobs open for each graduate of the school’s construction program. More recently, Associated General Contractors of America found, “Eighty percent of construction firms report they are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce.”

ICE sent Carlos and his daughter to Mexicali to wait for their court hearing. He quickly realized he could not find enough work to pay for childcare and a lawyer. Moreover, he worried about his daughter’s safety.

The only time Rosa Maria teared up in the conversation was when we talked about how sad her daughter was to return as she desperately wanted to go to school in the US. Leaning against the doorway, under a shiny red curtain to spruce up the small home they were about to lose, she said, “We were punished for telling the truth.”

Small coffee farmers, living crop to crop, competing against Mother Nature, bigger farms and global markets have just enough capital to make the trip, and more than enough ambition to confront the challenges of migration. They work hard. They love their family. They don’t want to leave. But they have to. Every single person I’ve talked to in Honduras over the past four days would immediately apply for a legal work visa, if one were available.

The dignity they leave Honduras with is taken by a Trump administration that clamps down on opportunities to apply for asylum, slashes legal immigration and looks to further reduce refugee numbers. Farmers return home to massive debt; a life of humble poverty at risk of becoming a life of extreme poverty.

My day in rural Honduras ended with a visit to the small home of Marco Antonio near the bottom of the valley. His infectious charisma and beaming grin belied his harrowing story.

In late July he had secured a loan to pay a coyote $10,000 to get his wife, baby son and him to the US. Approximately two weeks of travel led to the family, along with a dozen or so others, being held hostage by a Matamoros cartel. They were told that unless each person paid an additional $1,500 they would be killed.

Jo Ann, along with Marco Antonio and family

Marco Antonio’s siblings pieced together the money for the family’s release.

They crossed the river. They were processed by CBP. And, courtesy of the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” they were sent back to Matomoros.

Terrified they would be kidnapped again, Marco cobbled together the $500 necessary to get back to Honduras. Remembering his pocket of pesos for the bus, he told me, “The walk to the bus station is the most dangerous.”

The courts, not the cartels, should determine whether or not someone lives in the US.

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.