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

Updated: Mar 23, 2019

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 extension.

It is clearly the case, as Ambassador Nealon well knows and General Kelly should given his close relationship with the current Honduran regime, that Honduras does not have the capacity to handle mass deportations from the United States. This is a country where almost half of the people are either unemployed or underemployed, and where 6 out of 10 people live on less than $2.50/day. It’s a country where most citizens lack access to their fundamental rights to health care and education. And that is to say nothing of the violence – deporting Hondurans into the humanitarian catastrophe that is the post-electoral crisis, and into a nascent dictatorship where violent crimes end in impunity more than 90% of the time, is indescribable in its immorality.

It is, of course, very difficult to believe that any of this information would move the Tillerson State Department, which is explicitly uninterested in human rights as a basis of policy and which has just ordered the deportation of 200,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients into a country that, according to Doctors Without Borders, is the second most dangerous in the world, after only Syria. Tillerson has already said that conditions in Honduras are suitable for TPS visa-holders to return. Tillerson’s letter from December will effectively represent State Department policy, so we should expect silence in the best case scenario, or active support for ending TPS in the worst case scenario, from the Embassy.

In early February, Ambassador Nealon resigned from his post at Homeland Security, and speculation persists that the Trump Administration’s position on immigration forced his hand. A memo he wrote arguing for the extension of TPS emphasized, as many supporters of TPS extension do, the levels of assimilation found among TPS-holders, their essential place in the workforce, and their “many thousands of” US citizen children. (The Nealon memo was originally posted on Breitbart, which we’re declining to link to, but it’s quoted in the link above.)

There are obvious parallels to the arguments Nealon made for TPS-holders and the arguments made on behalf of DACA recipients. There’s regular emphasis on their “Americanness,” their contributions to the economy, their assimilation into US culture and norms, and their US-born children tied into narratives about how their status in the United States is not their fault.

This narrative, pragmatically speaking, works. A January poll by CBS News shows almost 90% of people in the United States supporting the right of DACA recipients to stay. But when we talk about framing domestic policy as foreign policy, and about the inhumanity of deporting people into the hotbed of crisis that is Juan Orlando Hernández’s Honduras, it’s important to remember that our reasons for opposing deportations have nothing at all to do with someone’s level of assimilation, or their perceived culpability in their own status. The implication of these defenses of TPS and DACA migrants is that the inverse must apply to some other immigrants – if “Americanness” is the hallmark of an undeportable immigrant, it must follow that immigrants that don’t speak fluent English, or don’t attend US universities, or don’t have US citizen children, must be in some manner more deportable. And this is, needless to say, dangerously wrong.

Maras, ICE, and Deportations

The question of the “good immigrant” vs. the “bad immigrant” has become even more entrenched by Donald Trump’s recent obsession with MS-13 as a representative bogeyman of Central American gangs, which he used in his State of the Union as the centerpiece for his deport-em-all immigration policy.

As we’ve mentioned before, the problem of maras (the Central American term for gangs, which include but are certainly not limited to MS-13) is deeply complicated, and its relationship with Central American migration is more complicated still. But we can start from a very simple premise: there is no question that what maras do in Central American cities and, in fewer but still important cases, North American ones, is essentially evil. Liberal allies of immigrants should take great care not to fall into the trap of minimizing the seriousness of the problem just because it has become a Trump talking point. All of the things that outrage us about the Honduran government’s post-election crackdown – the arbitrary extrajudicial killings, the forced disappearances and kidnappings, the targeted harassment of opponents and their families – are standard practice for maras. In fact, when we wrote about the DPI’s assassination of Geovanny Díaz in Pajuiles, part of what we found so disturbing was the murder’s resemblance to mara tactics.

Jonathan Blitzer, in an essential piece of reporting, wades into the complexity of the mara problem for Central American migrants. He tells the story of MS-13 terrorizing Central American migrants in the Long Island town of Brentwood. What Donald Trump and his army of bigoted supporters fail to understand, of course, is that a lot of those Central Americans (nearly 40%, according to Doctors Without Borders,) came to the US fleeing violence, including and especially violence perpetrated by those very same maras. They knowingly undertook an intensely dangerous journey to come to the US not in search of jobs or the classic “better life,” but in search of safety. There is a compounded tragedy to people finally arriving in Long Island, having suffered one of the most inhumane struggles in the world on the migrant trail, only to find MS-13 waiting for them there.

That tragedy is further compounded by Trump’s immigration policies. As Blitzer shows in his article, victims of MS-13 are by-and-large Central American and by-and-large undocumented. Because ICE sees is unable or unwilling to distinguish between the maras and their victims, they are increasingly refusing to report crimes against them for fear that they themselves will be deported. The cruelty of this is inherent, but think of the stark message about Honduras and El Salvador lingering beneath it: the fear of deportation is greater than the fear of MS-13. People would prefer to live in that kind of terror in Long Island than to return to their home countries, where they know what awaits them.

And besides being cruel, the tactic (to use the word very loosely) of targeting all undocumented immigrants is emboldening the maras. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, after a police raid arrested 22 members of MS-13 last summer, told The Economist that “MS preys on the illegal immigrant community. They extort them. They rob them. They rape them. They murder them. Without their cooperation as witnesses, none of this would be possible.” And, as the Nealon memo takes pains to mention, mass deportations to Central American countries that don’t have the capacity to repatriate them only increase the exact push factors – unemployment, inaccessibility of basic services, and violence – that lead people to migrate northward in the first place. As with so much else in US policy in Honduras, Trump’s immigration policy is self-defeating even on its own terms.

Although Donald Trump has not shown the desire nor the capacity to differentiate between gang members and their victims, much less the vast majority of Central American migrants who are neither, the notion that MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang should be particularly targeted for deportation is not new. It has been a constant thread of immigration policy running through both Republican and Democratic administrations since the early 90s. What happens in Central America when mareros are deported en masse is not a hypothetical question. We have almost three decades of brutal history to tell us.

It is not too much to say that US domestic policies created the mara problem in the Northern Triangle, and that subsequent US policies both domestic and foreign have exacerbated it. Both MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang were founded in Los Angeles, and the history of their formation and US policy pertaining to them is an emblematic case study of the ways that seeming domestic policies in the US have profound impacts on Central America. The way that the maras came to take vast swaths of territory in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has in its origins a disastrous confluence of Clinton-era policies, including the militarization of immigration enforcement, the rise of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, and the continued support for Central American strongmen.

MS-13 first attracted national attention in the United States in 1992, when LAPD blamed them for much of the violence during the riots in Los Angeles that year. Ana Arana, writing in Foreign Affairs in 2005, outlines the history. It is worth quoting at length, not least because of the undeniable parallels to the current situation:

In response, California implemented strict new antigang laws. Prosecutors began to charge young gang members as adults instead of minors…Next came the “three strikes and you’re out” legislation, passed in California in 1994, which dramatically increased jail time for offenders convicted of three or more felonies.

In 1996, Congress extended the get-tough approach to immigration law. Noncitizens sentenced to a year or more in prison would now be repatriated to their countries of origin, and even foreign-born American felons could be stripped of their citizenship and expelled once they served their prison terms. The list of deportable crimes was increased, coming to include minor offenses such as drunk driving and petty theft. As a result, between 2000 and 2004, an estimated 20,000 young Central American(s)…were deported to countries they barely knew. Many of the deportees were native English speakers who had arrived in the United States as toddlers but had never bothered to secure legal residency or citizenship.

In the following years, the deportations continued. As more and more hard-core gang members were expelled from Los Angeles, the Central American maras grew…In 2002, the embattled Central American republics began to fight back. The charge was led by Honduras, where Ricardo Maduro, a Stanford graduate, was elected president in November 2001 on a get-tough platform. Maduro, whose son had been killed in an attempted kidnapping in 1997, introduced a series of “zero tolerance” laws empowering the government to imprison people for up to 12 years merely on suspicion of gang membership (often determined simply by the presence of distinctive tattoos, which members wear on their necks, arms, and legs).

Maduro’s “mano dura” (“strong hand”) approach had an immediate impact, and El Salvador soon adopted a similar program. Many young gang members were quickly pulled off the streets and thrown into prison. Within a year, the Honduran prison system had swelled to 200 percent beyond capacity, leading to several prison riots in April 2003 and May 2004.

The maras retaliated against the crackdown by launching a wave of random violence. Shortly after the introduction of the new antigang laws, they began killing and beheading young victims; at least a dozen decapitated bodies were found in Honduras and Guatemala, grisly symbols of the maras’ undiminished power. As gang leaders were jailed, new leaders sprang up to take their places. MS-13 and M-18 also began to scout abroad for more hospitable terrain, turning their sights first on Mexico and then back on the United States.

Since Arana’s article was published, the militarized approach to the mara problem in Honduras has only grown, and it has done so with explicit support from the United States. It has been clear for decades that it doesn’t work, that it is in fact exactly counterproductive, emboldening the maras and creating a steady stream of refugees fleeing their violence. The government of Juan Orlando Hernández has used the mara problem as a justification for a litany of militarization policies, including the formation of the same Military Police that have been responsible for the majority of extrajudicial killings and torture since the elections.

In other words, we can and should think of the brutality of militarized ICE raids as a

transnational phenomenon – the same tactics that are terrorizing people in the US are terrorizing people in Honduras. Misguided US policy that stubbornly refuses to learn any lessons from its past failures is being exported, which we see in both highly militarized approaches to gangs and the use of US-style maximum security prisons in Honduras.

To make it worse, of course, the same Honduran security forces that get ample US training and funding for their supposed help in the fight against gangs are implicated in widespread and systematic human rights abuses. And to make it more absurd, the violence forces the very migration it is purported to stop.

In Honduras, there is a prevailing worry about undocumented family members in the United States as a result of Donald Trump’s presidency, a genuine fear of the significance of massive numbers of deportees arriving in a country that can’t handle them (we often say that the only deportees with jobs waiting for them are the mareros), and deep indignation at the racist brush with which Trump, Kelly, and ICE paint Central American migrants and refugees. Trump’s MS-13 section of his State of the Union has found a captive audience with at least one Honduran, though. And it is equal parts disturbing and unsurprising who it is:

The Witness for Peace Honduras team would be remiss not to thank Saraí from the WfP Mexico team for her hugely important guidance on the DACA and TPS section.



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