Every day a stream of anxious passengers disembarks at San Pedro Sula airport, weary from the flight and weighed down by a lifetime’s worth of luggage. But these passengers are not coming to Honduras by choice: They have been deported, from either Mexico or the United States.
Between January and April 2018, the reception center at the transport hub received 23,601 arrivals, about 64 percent from Mexico, which has for some time acted as the long arm of U.S. migration control. The country stops many Central American migrants before they ever reach the U.S. border.
Now, across the U.S., some 57,000 Hondurans, along with 195,000 Salvadorans, are asking when they might face the same uncertain future. In early 2018, the Trump administration announced the termination of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for beneficiaries from both El Salvador and Honduras. The program allowed recipients to work and live legally in the U.S.
The administration decided that the conditions justifying the TPS for both countries – natural disasters that happened close to 20 years ago – no longer applied. This decision will pose challenges not just for the U.S. (It will cost taxpayers $3.1 billion to deport 252,000 TPS holders and their 245,000 children), but also for Central America. The increased deportations will put even more stress on countries struggling with economic hardship and rampant gang brutality.
Deportation will leave many feeling uprooted: Between 30 and 50 percent of TPS holders has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades. For many arrivals in the San Pedro Sula and San Salvador airports, home is Maryland, Los Angeles or New York. Their official “welcome back” to Honduras or El Salvador lasts for a few hours in a crowded airport annex, where functionaries shout instructions about getting national ID cards. “That is the last time you hear from them,” said one young Salvadoran deportee.
Most deportees will struggle to make a living without interacting with organized crime, which owes its prevalence in Central America partly to previous waves of U.S. deportations.
After that, deportees must fend for themselves. If they’re lucky, they get jobs in call centers, a booming industry in Central America thanks to generous tax incentives, low operating costs and a constant flow of newly arrived English-speaking employees. In El Salvador, call centers employ about 20,000 people.
However, most deportees will struggle to make a living without interacting with organized crime, which owes its prevalence in Central America partly to previous waves of U.S. deportations. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, whereby non-U.S. convicts had to be deported to their home countries.
As a result, Central America absorbed 46,000 deportees with criminal record from the U.S. between 1998 and 2005. This prompted the expansion of U.S.-bred gang culture across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and midwifed such notorious groups as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. El Salvador has the highest population of gang members – some 65,000 – with a further half a million people considered sympathizers or dependents.
Today, should new deportees want to start a business, most will have to deal with the local gang – the de facto authority in many barrios. Gangs are present in 247 of 262 of El Salvador’s municipalities and extort 70 percent of businesses there, according to the online newspaper El Faro.
“Every single thing that takes place in this neighborhood has the green light of the clique [the gang’s local cells],” said an NGO worker as we walked in a San Salvador district controlled by the MS-13. “You may not see them, but they are watching you right now.” The damage of gang activity to El Salvador’s economy is estimated at 16 percent of the country’s GDP.
Youths are perhaps the most vulnerable to gang influence. Many boys are asked to join the local gang and threatened if they refuse. Entire families are displaced trying to prevent their kids from being forcibly recruited, usually when they are 12 to 16 years old. Girls may face worse. A social worker in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, told me about a girl who an MS-13 gangster had made a sex slave. Every day for two years, he snatched the girl up after school, raped and abused her, and returned her home in the morning. She eventually ran away with her parents. Why didn’t the family report what was going on? The social worker replied: “Fear is a big thing here…. And where would they go? The police?”
Despite a recent fall in the murder rate and police reform efforts, Hondurans have ever more reasons to flee. Security forces are understaffed and poorly trained – and very often corrupt. Their links to gangs scare many victims away from reporting crimes due to fear of retaliation. Meanwhile, the country’s chronic political crisis has intensified since the 2017 general elections, which sparked violent unrest following a dispute over the results. In the months following the clashes, the number of undocumented Honduran migrants apprehended in Mexico rose sharply.
Conditions in El Salvador are similarly inhospitable. The country’s murder rate rose slightly more than 15 percent in the first three months of 2018 compared to the previous year. In 2016, the country’s Congress approved of a set of “extraordinary measures” ― prison and law enforcement rules aimed at limiting inmates’ communication. The gangs’ violent response to these policies, as well as internal tensions inside the country’s largest criminal organizations, can explain much of the increase in violence.
And so ever more Central Americans flee northward, in spite of the manifest dangers and intensifying border control in Mexico and the U.S. In 2017, both countries received most of the 294,000 new asylum seekers – 58 percent more than the previous year – from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. agency attributes the increase to more cases of “forced recruitment into armed criminal gangs and death threats” in northern Central America.
And yet, last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that victims of gang violence no longer qualify for asylum in the U.S. This decision closes the door to thousands fleeing life-or-death situations. It could force other countries in the region like Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama to absorb the burdens of a humanitarian crisis that, in the long-term, will only be worsened by another wave of massive deportations from the U.S.
Sure, the future wave of TPS deportees will not be made up of convicted criminals. But if the precarious security and political conditions awaiting them in their home countries are not addressed, many of these returnees are unlikely to stay long. This will only fuel a pernicious cycle whereby deportations swell the ranks of violent criminal groups in Central America with new recruits, in turn forcing more people to flee north, leading to still more deportations.
The U.S. could do more to support refugee reception, especially in Latin America, so that those who have credible fears meriting safe harbor can find it. Washington could also invest more in security, justice and development across Central America by funding rehabilitation programs for gang members who want to leave criminal life (approximately 70 percent of jailed gang members in El Salvador, according to one survey).
Against the backdrop of its inhumane zero tolerance migration policies, emphasizing these more supportive initiatives would be a good way for the U.S. to signal to its southern neighbors that it understands its stability is linked to theirs and to demonstrate its commitment to investing in their future.
Sofía Martínez is an analyst for the conflict-prevention organization International Crisis Group covering politics, crime and humanitarian issues in Central America.