Domestic Policy as Foreign Policy: What Donald Trump’s Immigration Policies Mean in Honduras

What Donald Trump’s Immigration Policies, from ICE Raids to MS-13 and from DACA to TPS, mean in Honduras

By Ryan Morgan, Honduras International Team

Not long into the post-election crisis, I was flying back to the San Pedro Sula airport from a quick trip I’d made to Tegucigalpa. The customs and immigration area and baggage claim at SAP is never a model of efficiency, but it was particularly chaotic that morning. Having come off a rare domestic flight, I didn’t have to get in line for passport control, but that was little relief. Hundreds of people were scrambling around, and hundreds of bags were being pumped onto the conveyor belt, in a room that can generously fit about half that many comfortably.

In the moment, I didn’t think much of it, except in that it was another travel annoyance in a long line of them. I was recounting the story a couple days later to a taxi driver we sometimes use in Progreso, where we live. “Oh, yeah,” he told me, “that’s when the deportee planes came in.” Of course. I asked him how many, and he told me three. Three plane-loads of people were arriving on what is actually and not ironically called ICE Air. It’s hard to verify the exact number of people who arrived that morning, but it could have been as many as 400 people if the planes were all filled to capacity (and you’d have to imagine they would have been, or else why would they need three planes?)

The thing that took me aback then but has become unsettlingly normal to me by now is that the last I’d heard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had put a temporary hold on deportations to Honduras. There was good reason for this. The only reason I was flying from Tegus to San Pedro at all was because, the curfew freshly ended, protests and tomas were taking over the highway and the normal bus journey was no sure thing. Dozens had been killed already, and we were only just starting to get the now-confirmed reports about torture and forced disappearance. Even being able to get from the airport to any of the surrounding towns, on some days, required navigating an impossible labyrinth of protests and repression if it could be done at all. Commercial flights were beginning to cancel en masse.

It is of course no surprise the callous disregard that ICE has for the fate of deportees once they arrive in their home countries, but somehow this seemed beyond even what little I expect from them. In the best case scenario, Honduran deportees are sent back to a country where the majority of people live without meaningful access to education, health care, jobs or personal security. Many of them came to the US fleeing violence of one kind or another – some fleeing state violence, some fleeing gang violence, some fleeing narcos – and all of those are thrown back into the fire they had just escaped. There are precious few resources for deportees when they arrive. Re-entry and repatriation programs are few, and those that exist are chronically understaffed, unable to keep up with the enormous number of people who need their services, with hundreds arriving on a near daily basis.

But this was something different, something worse. This was deporting people into a country whose government was in the opening stages of a concentrated campaign of gross human rights violations, probably amounting to crimes against humanity. This was sending people directly into what we were beginning then to think of as a war zone. This was, somehow, against the odds, a higher level of inhumanity in ICE’s deportation practices.

Later that day, I checked, as I irregularly do, the Twitter account for Heide Fulton, the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa. (There is not, and has not been since this summer, an ambassador in Honduras, so Fulton is the head of operations there.) It turned out that she had tweeted this only a couple of hours after I arrived:

Sor Willemann is a Brazilian nun who had been running the euphemistically named Center for Returned Migrants, as Fulton’s tweet says, for 13 years. It probably goes without saying that, as nice as the gesture might be, what deportees need when they arrive in Honduras is access to jobs and housing, and guarantees of personal safety against the myriad threats that await them when they return. A coffee and a baleada is not going to cut it. (In Sor Willemann’s defense, it’s clear from her appearance in Jennifer Ávila and Radio Progreso’s semanal short documentary, No Se Van…, that she provided a lot more than that.)

As if to add to the mountain of chutzpah that was a tweet celebrating the paltry re-entry programs for deportees from the United States on the same day that three planes full of deportees were being sent into this chaos, the ceremony celebrating Sor Willemann’s retirement was officiated by Juan Orlando Hernández’s wife and David Matamoros’s daughter. At a time before the US had officially recognized Juan Orlando’s fraudulent electoral “victory,” when they should have been as eager as possible to avoid appearances of impropriety or favoring the nascent dictatorship, they sent officials off to a ceremony celebrating their deportation program for photo ops with the First Lady and the daughter of the head of the deeply corrupt Supreme Electoral Tribunal that had just thrown the election for Juan Orlando. This was a clear case where the optics of the event mirrored perfectly, and you’d think unintentionally, a profoundly disturbing relationship between the Embassy and the Hernández government.

What’s more, a few days before all this, the State Department had issued a travel advisory to Honduras, recommending that US citizens cancel or postpone their trips on account of the post-election violence. A few days later, they would close the consulate in San Pedro Sula – the very same city people are deported into – and order their personnel there to stay indoors. It is at once beyond words and very simple to see what this message is. The United States will deport hundreds of people into a situation it considers too dangerous for not just its own citizens but its own diplomatic corps. It’s not exactly right to call this essential immorality “shocking,” but somehow it did manage to leave me a little more shaken than I usually am by things like this.

The State Department and Embassy’s position is easy to understand, fundamentally contradictory though it may be. We talk a lot about the human rights conditionality attached to the Alliance for Prosperity – 50% of aid to Honduras requires the Honduran government to take “effective steps” to improving its human rights record and combating corruption – but what sometimes get lost in the outrage over the annual State Department certification is that the Appropriations Act ties a further 25% of the aid to Honduras taking “effective steps” to prevent migration to the United States and repatriate deportees. Celebrating the paltry, perpetually under-capacity Center for Returned Migrants is best read in that context – the Embassy knows that services for deportees are desperately inadequate, but as long as they represent “effective steps,” they’re worthy of praise. It’s cynical and counterproductive, but it’s obvious.

Domestic Policy as Foreign Policy: ICE raids, deportations, DACA, and TPS.

In the wake of the nakedly racist, draconian approach to immigration taken by the Trump Administration and large swaths of the Republican Party, we have seen a surge of interest in the plight of migrants in the United States. It is critical for the people who are showing solidarity with migrants in the United States to understand what it means for people to come back to Honduras, both in terms of the risks assumed by deportees and in terms of the impact it has on Honduras as a whole. In short, people and organizations should approach the question of deportations, DACA, and TPS not only as localized domestic policy issues but as foreign policy ones, not just as a question of US immigration policy but as a question of human rights. The story of Honduran migrants begins, of course, in Honduras. And understanding the Honduran context from which those migrants have come (and the situation to which deportees are being returned) is crucial to being a legitimate ally to migrants in the United States.

Honduras, DACA, and TPS

There are a little more than 16,000 Hondurans with DACA status in the United States, making it the fourth-highest national origin for DACA recipients after Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. There are another 57,000 Hondurans in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (or TPS), a visa granted to people in the wake of national emergencies and, until recently, extended as a matter of course by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The majority of the Hondurans on TPS came in 1998 as refugees from the devastation of Hurricane Mitch.

The Trump Administration, in November, announced that they had extended Temporary Protected Status for Hondurans until July 5th of this year, even while ending the program for Haitians, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans. Honduran media reported that James Nealon, the most recent Ambassador to Honduras who was tapped for a position in the Department of Homeland Security by his longtime friend and ally John Kelly when Kelly was still the head of DHS, was instrumental in securing the extensi