On a return flight from Tegucigalpa last month, I met a Honduran man I'll call Elias. He was returning to the United States for the first time in over a decade since he exited the country to take care of his aging parents in Honduras.
"After I left, I was not allowed to reenter the country," he told me, in Spanish. "I hired a lawyer and applied for years with no luck. Eventually my son became a U.S. citizen and was able to sponsor me. Even then, it took my lawyer almost 5 years to get my return visa processed. It was very expensive."
Elias is among the lucky few Honduran nationals who are allowed legal entry (let alone reentry) into the United States. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, naturalization rates for immigrants born in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are "markedly lower" than those of other Latin American and Caribbean nationals. In 2011, the naturalization rate for immigrants born in Honduras was only 38 percent.
Honduras has a lot riding on the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill currently being debated in Washington. Just last week, Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo tweeted his support for President Barack Obama and the bipartisan coalition in Congress that is working on a reform bill:
Translation: I want to thank Barack Obama and Republican and Democratic congressmen who are driving the reform that will support our immigrant brothers.
Hondurans in the U.S.
It is difficult to say for certain how many Hispanics of Honduran origin currently live in the United States. The Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated there to be 650,000 Hondurans in the U.S. in 2009 and 731,000 in 2010. The State Department puts that number closer to 1 million, "600,000 of whom are believed to be undocumented." This would make Hondurans the second-largest undocumented population in the U.S., after Mexicans.
But does Honduras (and for that matter, any country in Central America) have the resources in Washington to move the immigration reform bill toward meaningful consideration of their immigrants to the United States? Mitt Romney famously called Latin America "a huge opportunity for us" during last year's presidential debates. In 2011, former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Cresencio Arcos wrote in the Security and Defense Studies Review that
Latin America lacks the influential presence of a powerful and skillful "lobby" to ensure that U.S. policymakers stay consistently focused on the region.
The CIR bill in Washington is a great opportunity for Honduras to forge such a relationship in Washington, which could have a direct effect on the eventual allocation or 'quota' of legal immigrants from Honduras afforded by the proposed reform bill. It could also affect the condition which undocumented Hondurans in the U.S. achieve a 'path to citizenship.' This, in turn, could have a marked effect on the future of remittances from the U.S. to Honduras.
Remittances to Honduras
In 2007, the Honduran Foreign Ministry estimated that legal and undocumented immigrants in the United States were expected to send back to Honduras a record $2.8 billion that year -- more than a quarter of Honduras' gross domestic product at the time. After falling nearly 11 percent during the peak of the global financial crisis in 2009, southbound remittances from the U.S. to Honduras bounced back in 2010 to an estimated $2.7 billion, according to World Bank data. Last month officials in Tegucigalpa told me that southbound remittances had continued to rise to an estimated $3 billion last year -- or $3,000 per Honduran living in the United States.
The effect of the rising remittances from the U.S. to Honduras is profound -- particularly in Honduras' rural economies where many of the undocumented immigrants originate. According to the World Bank--
Honduran migrants are partners in the social, economic, and political development of their home communities. A rising transnational economy in rural Honduras can be characterized by migrants' financial contribution to community development, returning migrants and their investments in local private sector, courier services, and informal market of migration and remittances. Migrants in the United States create demand for a market in nostalgic products from Honduras.
In other words, remittances from the U.S. to Honduras are often a mutually beneficial arrangement.
The sooner a CIR bill puts the estimated 600,000 undocumented Hondurans in the U.S. on a path to citizenship, the sooner these immigrants can move out of the shadow economy and compete for higher wages as equals to U.S. citizens. Higher wages for the new population of 'Honduran-American' will likely contribute to a continued increase of remittances back to Honduras.
Deportations to Honduras
The CIR bill currently being debated in Washington is particularly consequential to undocumented immigrants from Honduras living in the U.S.. In recent years, the pace of deportations of Honduran immigrants has fluctuated from fewer than 19,000 deportations in 2005, to just over 29,000 in 2007, before dropping to just under 22,000 deportations in 2011.
The combination of a robust border security and the path to citizenship provisions of the CIR bill championed by the White House and Congress should have the effect of decreasing deportations. This, too, will have a significant impact on the future of Honduras. Fewer immigrants deported to Honduras relieves the Honduran state from having to absorb and reintegrate these immigrants into their national economy.
Further, while undocumented Hondurans are a source of significant remittances to Honduras, they do not provide the professional network that can enhance diplomatic and sustainable trade relations between the two countries. A sharp uptick in the amount of dual-citizens of the U.S. and Honduras will help bilateral relations to proceed via a stable, human network over the next generation.
Since the majority of Hondurans in the U.S. are thought to be undocumented, it is easy to see why relations between the two countries (and for that matter, between the U.S. and most of Central America) remain largely static. The CIR bill, if meaningfully crafted in Washington with the interests of both the U.S. and Honduras at heart, will help to improve the status quo. For now, Latin America remains sparsely represented in Washington. While high-tech, LGBT, Dream Act, and border security advocates have achieved considerable clout in the CIR debate, the discussion about how CIR will effect the future of the Central American countries from which the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. originated is much more obscure. This is unfortunate, as the strategic relevance of the region is as unquestionable as the future relationship between the U.S. and Central America is uncertain.