“Their dignity is robbed…”

Cuban migrant who walked to the US, via Panama, at Casa del MIgrantes in Juarez, Mexico. (All photos by Ali Noorani)

In the late afternoon sun, an elderly woman swept the front of her home with the same pride of suburban America. But we weren’t in suburban America. We were in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the 2013 murder capital of the world.

Dust filled our bus as we bounced along the dirt road cutting through one of the city’s bordos, neighborhoods of extreme poverty — the dirt road was her front yard.

Exposed by open windows so we weren’t mistaken to be police, our awkward gazes were greeted with nonchalant glances. Children played in front of tiny, one-room, homes, made of corrugated metal and scrap wood.

Back in the US, the president claimed throughout the week that America was being invaded by the type of Central Americans we spoke to that afternoon — proud, hard-working, people seeking a life free of violence. Over the course of two and a half days in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, we saw firsthand what leads people to pack their bags and walk to America.

In addition to meeting faith leaders, business leaders, law enforcement, international NGO and US embassy staff, we spent a couple hours at a US AID sponsored Save the Children community center in La Rivera Hernandez, a notoriously violent neighborhood controlled by six different gangs.

The center provides about one hundred children a day recreation, classrooms and training on sewing machines and computers. They are expanding to provide electrical and welding training.

Manual sewing machines at Save the Children in Rivera Hernandez.

In addition to the center’s staff, four young women, from 16 to early their 20s, gave us a glimpse of life in Rivera Hernandez. Time at the community center or church was cherished. Walking home at dark was avoided. Dreams of working with technology in an office or learning multiple languages to work at a call center were vivid.

One of the young women grew up in another neighborhood. But, her mother moved her to Rivera Hernandez because she had caught the attention of a local gang member. One of the staff told us she moved her son out of Rivera until the gang member who recruited him died. Families who could not find a safety for their children from the gangs, sent them to the US.

Speaking with young women leaders at Save the Children, Rivera Hernandez

We learned that in neighborhoods like Rivera Hernandez, extortion is a fact of life. Whether you are driving a bus or selling gum, if you didn’t pay the “war tax,” you are threatened. If you don’t pay, you are killed. The police, in spite of anti-corruption efforts, were not trusted. And, if you want to escape the extortion and apply for a job outside Rivera, a prospective employer will see your address and likely deny you the job.

Extortion leads to violence which leads to hopelessness. One of the young women was talked out of leaving on a caravan. She is proud of Honduras. But she understands why people flee. Because in a country that cannot provide the rule of law to those who have no economic opportunity, walking thousands of miles to safety sounds like a better option.

Yes, one US AID funded community center in one of the worst neighborhoods in San Pedro gives people hope. But it does not solve the big systemic problems of corruption, violence and joblessness that undermine Honduras. That will take a big, courageous, vision. A vision the Obama administration never realized. A vision the Trump administration has sullied.

Later in the week, we split Thursday between El Paso and Juarez.

We started at the El Paso immigration court and for two hours witnessed six of the one million backlogged cases in the system. One of the women, a Nicaraguan, represented herself, pro se, in the bond hearing. The judge reviewed her case file and asked a few questions. She answered, in Spanish, with poise and clarity, outlining the situation of her sponsor in New Jersey, the reasons she fled and why she sought bond.

The previous applicants had not been as well prepared. Based on the information we heard, this young woman seemed to have the strongest asylum claim.

The judge turned to the ICE lawyer for her statement. The lawyer laid into the young woman’s case in a way she had not with any of the previous cases. Her voice escalated as she claimed the sponsor was financially unable to care for the Nicaraguan woman, accused the woman of being a part of caravan that stormed the Mexican border putting children and police in harm’s way, and angrily cited section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act as a reason the woman should be denied bond.

In the face of this onslaught, I expected the young woman to sputter in her response — whether in fear or in anger. Instead, with a courage in her posture and strength in her voice, a survival instinct kicked in. First, she calmly described the economic situation of her sponsor. Then, her voice raised just a little bit as she leaned toward the microphone to tell the judge, in no uncertain terms, she understood the challenges the caravans posed but that she had been detained for six months and had fled Nicaragua well before the caravans started. The judge leaned back in his chair. The ICE lawyer looked down.

The judge ruled the migrant did not pose a security risk to America and was not a flight risk. He granted her a bond of $5,000. This young woman, a student who fled political violence in Nicaragua and wanted to be able to speak with her family, broke down in tears.

So did we.

This moment of courageous dignity was eclipsed in a matter of hours as we crossed into Juarez and visited Casa Del Migrante, a shelter for migrants traveling through Juarez to seek asylum in the US, or leaving the US to return to their home countries. The 20-minute drive to the shelter from the border meant there was no easy access to the port of entry.

A banner hanging outside Casa Del Migrantes in Juarez, Mexico

On this afternoon, approximately 600 migrants were there (they turned away two buses of African migrants earlier in the day). After walking through the cafeteria where families with young children were first to eat (all the food was donated), we crossed a dirt lot to the overflow facility where single men were staying. Quickly, we were surrounded by over 50 men sharing their story — including a number of Cubans who had walked via Panama.

Lunch, provided by volunteers, at Casa Del Migrante.

We struck up a conversation with a couple of Honduran men from San Pedro — they shook their heads in disbelief that we had visited Rivera Hernandez.

It was clear they had no idea what lay ahead in terms of navigating the asylum process. Moreover, Mexican employers were not accepting the government issued humanitarian visas as authorizations to work. They only knew that fleeing the extortion, violence and poverty of Honduras was their best bet.

They had come this far, avoided cartels and fought off thieves to find physical safety and economic security. They weren’t about to give up and turn around.

The stark reality of the situation was shared by Linda Rivas, executive director of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. Linda, with her two-month old newborn sleeping in the office next door, led an organization who, for over 30 years, had helped migrants seek asylum.

Needless to say, Linda’s maternity leave was not of the unplugged variety.

Mural outside Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas

As we shared our experience at Casa Del Migrante and government-sponsored shelters for youth in Juarez, the conversation turned to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy — that would require asylum seekers to stay in Mexico as they waited for a hearing. The policy is currently being implemented in Tijuana, with The Times reporting that people are being pushed to other points along the border or into the hands of cartels. And the Houston Chronicle’s Lomi Kriel describes the situation along the Texas border.

If implemented in El Paso, thousands would be stranded in an already overwhelmed Juarez. Would Linda’s El Paso-based lawyers need work visas to help clients in Juarez? If the migrant needs paperwork sent to them, where would it go? Where would migrants stay in Juarez if they had to wait months?

As we talked, my mind went to the young women in Rivera Hernandez, the San Pedro police captain who was thousands of officers short but still managed to drive down homicides, the business leaders who felt Honduras could be a magnet for foreign direct investment if the institutions were stronger, the Honduran women thrilled to be beauticians but needing to get home before the dangerous dark descended, the neighborhood elder who told us evangelical churches were one of the few places youth could escape the gangs.

We met Hondurans who want nothing more than to escape violence and poverty to improve their family’s lot in life. They didn’t lose their dignity when they made the desperate decision to leave. But, as Linda put it, “Their dignity is robbed once they are treated like criminals.”

The fact is we aren’t invested in finding real solutions for Central America. Honduras was in a better position than 2013, but still on the precipice. For the most part, we ignore a region that is within walking distance. We manufacture crises at the border and treat migrants as criminals.

All in the hope migrants choose a life of violence, crime and poverty, over the promise of America.

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