Honduras has barely begun to recover from the two hurricanes that hit late last year. With relatively little assistance to the U.S. in the event of a disaster, many are moving toward the border.
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – Children are smearing dirt with batons trying to dig up parts of homes that have sunk underground. Their parents, unable to feed them, remove the rubble to sell the remains of the roofs for scrap iron. They live on top of the mud that has swallowed refrigerators, stoves, beds – their whole lives buried under them.
“We are doomed here,” said Magdalena Flores, a mother of seven, who stood on a mattress protruding from the dirt where her house once stood. “Despair, sadness, that’s what drives you to migrate.”
People have long since left Honduras for the United States, fleeing gang violence, economic misery and the indifference of a government led by a president accused of links to drug traffickers.
Then last fall, two hurricanes quickly hit impoverished areas of Honduras, hitting more than four million people across the country – nearly half the population – and leveling entire neighborhoods.
“People don’t move; they are fleeing, ”said César Ramos, of the Mennonite Commission for Social Action, a group that helps people affected by storms. “These people have lost everything, even their hope.”
President Biden insisted that the recent rise in migration to the United States is nothing unusual, just another peak in its long history, especially in the months when the desert along the US-Mexican border is colder and more passable.
“It happens every single year,” Mr. Biden said at a news conference last month. “There has been a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months.”
But last month, arrests on the southwestern border of the United States reached a 15-year high, part of a sharp rise since Mr. Biden took office.
Most unaccompanied families and children come from Honduras and Guatemala, the two countries hardest hit by the hurricanes – a sign that the president’s welcome policy on immigration has attracted people at a time when they are especially desperate to leave.
“It’s a detonating event that is huge in itself,” Andrew Selee, president of the Institute for Migration Policy, said of the storms. “An event like the Covid Recession, plus two hurricanes, and the potential for an even bigger jump is so much stronger.”
Eager to shift from his predecessor’s hostile attitude toward migrants, Mr. Biden proposed spending $ 4 billion to address the “root causes” of migration, and recently eavesdropped on Vice President Kamala Harris to work with Central American leaders in better conditions in those countries.
Nevertheless, Mr. Biden sent a clear message to anyone considering crossing the border in the meantime: “Don’t come,” Mr. Biden. he said in a recent interview.
The warning is barely registered in parts of Honduras such as Chamelecón, a San Pedro Sule-flooded sector of San Pedro Sule that has been hit by both storms. Disaster survivors say they have no choice at all.
For months after the hurricane, the houses remain under water. They have gaping holes replaced bridges. There are thousands of people still displaced, who live in shelters or on the street. Hunger haunts them.
“I never wanted to do that,” said Ana Hernández, holding the hand of her 11-year-old son at a gas station in San Pedro Sula, the economic capital of Honduras. “The situation is forcing me. You get to the point where you have nothing to give them to eat. ”
Every night buses leave from where she stood, and many head to Guatemala on the first leg of the trip to the United States. Ms. Hernández bought tickets after months of living in the corpse of her home, a wreck storm.
Mexico has asked the Biden administration to send more disaster relief aid to Central America. Mr Biden claims that under former President Trump, “instead of falling and helping in a big way” after the disasters, “we did nothing”.
A National Security Council official said the administration planned to dedicate $ 112 million in humanitarian aid to storm-ravaged communities, in addition to the $ 61 million already approved under Mr. Trump.
In contrast, President Clinton pushed through nearly a billion dollars for the region in the late 1990s, after Hurricane Mitch, which killed more people but caused a similar level of damage as recent storms, aides say.
Immediate humanitarian aid could certainly help alleviate hunger, homelessness, and other storm-induced crises, as it seemed after Hurricane Mitch.
But it is much harder to prove that funding sent in the past to improve conditions in Central America has reduced migration, experts say, in part because corrupt politicians and elites have pulled money undermined efforts to change their economies enough give the poor a reason to stay at home.
Now in Honduras, the task of the Biden administration is even more daunting because of the criminal cases against men linked to President Juan Orlando Hernández.
New York prosecutors said Mr. Hernández helped facilitate cocaine deliveries from Honduras and, according to court documents, claimed he embezzled U.S. aid money through fake nonprofits. Mr Hernández, the state leader since 2014, has denied the allegations and has not been charged. A spokesman did not comment.
“We need to aggressively address the levels of despair faced by people affected by these storms,” said Dan Restrepo, a former chief adviser to President Obama. “We have to get big now and we have to be loud about it, because that’s actually starting to take into account the calculus people are facing today, and that’s,‘ Can I survive here or not? “
People smugglers are already using Mr. Biden’s presence in the White House to attract new customers. Moving quickly and loudly, Mr. Biden reversed many of the harsh immigration policies initiated by his predecessor.
Traffickers in Honduras lure customers by promising a much easier trip north, uttering Mr. Biden’s refusal to immediately expel children at the border and big promises about how friendly the new administration will be, according to interviews with smugglers.
One trafficker presented his latest appearance to Honduran families thinking about leaving: “They have opened everything, now you can re-enter,” he said on condition of anonymity due to the illegal nature of his business. “If they catch you, they send you to Mexico. It is not like before, where you were sent back to your country. ”
He added that since Mr. Biden’s inauguration, he has illegally smuggled 75 people across the U.S. border.
“Because of the new president, they are opening more doors,” he said. “It’s a free market. That’s how we see it. “
But instead of pointing to Mr. Biden, many Hondurans first throw out the name of their own president as a reason to leave home.
Mr Hernández’s brother was recently sentenced by a US court to life in prison for trafficking cocaine to the United States. Prosecutors said the president provided protection to his brother and other traffickers in exchange for cash.
For many Hondurans, in particular, the past few months have provided a frightening case study of how little they seem to matter to their government.
Jesus Membrane’s house was mowed down by storms on the side of the mountain, but there is nowhere else to go, he built a shelter over a piece of cement floor that was left behind.
“We didn’t get anything from the government, not even a sheet metal to replace our roof,” Mr. Membreño said.
He said he would head north alone in the coming weeks.
Residents of Canaan, a part of the Chamelecón suburb that has been razed to the ground by hurricanes, say the government has never sent any tractors to clear the mud. So Mrs. Flores and her neighbors are trying to feed their children by cutting off pieces of their demolished homes and selling them like scrap metal.
“Just buy some beans or rice,” she said, wading through the mud interrupted by the tops of children’s bikes and other rubble. “No one, no politician or government, has helped us.”
The first time Ms. Flores tried to come to the United States was after her ex-husband broke into her home and cut off her face and arms with a machete, she said. She never succeeded.
The second time was this January, she said, after living with her children under a makeshift tent after storms damaged her home. Several goods she had accumulated over the years — a stove, a refrigerator, beds, and a television — swallowed the mud.
“Sadness and disappointment affect you,” Ms. Flores said. “It’s very difficult to see your home buried. I have nothing left. ”
With her six children, she joined the first migrant caravan this year, in January, she said. They walked for miles, but turned around after barely eating for days, and were then tearred and beaten by Guatemalan police. Then she stopped believing that Mr. Biden would welcome anyone with open arms.
“If that were the case, why would they send me home?” she asked.
So Mrs. Flores built parts of her old wooden house a shelter on top of the ground that devoured everything she had.
Now she waits for the next caravan to leave, driven not by hope but by despair.