It's not so bad to deport children to what was until recently the murder capital of the world, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Friday, since Honduras is "a beautiful country" with "gorgeous resort zones."
More than 200,000 unaccompanied minors or mothers traveling with their children have fled to the United States from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador over the last two years, with many of them asking for asylum or other humanitarian relief. All three countries are plagued by out-of-control gang violence and inadequate criminal justice systems. El Salvador and Guatemala are both still recovering from civil wars that ended in the 1990s, while Honduras suffered a coup in 2009.
But the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairman said he saw on a recent three-day trip to Honduras and Guatemala that the implication that deporting children there is "sending them into a war zone" is incorrect.
"We had security but, you know, Vicki, it's not a war zone," he said on WIBA Madison's "Up Front with Vicki McKenna." "It's obviously a poorer country than America but it's a beautiful country, it's a beautiful country. The people are beautiful."
Johnson said one solution for improving the situation there could be building more resorts.
"You could establish along the zones of the coast of the Caribbean in Honduras gorgeous resorts zones," he said. "If we could help them do that, they could start rebuilding their economy."
The senator, along with most other Republicans, has been critical of the Obama administration's approach to a surge in apprehensions of families and unaccompanied minors at the southern border last year. Most of those women and children were coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and are seeking asylum because they say they were in danger at home.
Several of the Central American mothers told The Huffington Post in interviews over the last year that gang members threatened to kill them or their children if they refused to join. Others said they faced sexual abuse that authorities did nothing to stop.
To be granted asylum, individuals must be determined to have "credible fear" of returning to their native country because they face persecution over race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Many unaccompanied minors have won asylum due to fears of persecution from gangs if they return, according to the pro-bono attorneys who represent them.
A legacy of civil war and political instability -- historically fueled by U.S. Cold War concerns -- and the increasing use of the Central American isthmus as a cocaine trafficking corridor from South America over the last decade have combined to make the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala some of the most violent places in the world.
While Johnson contended that lax enforcement of U.S. immigration law did more to incentivize Central American immigration, he also said that drug consumption in the United States played a key role in destabilizing the region by empowering violent cartels.
"The root cause of the problems in Central America and Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador is our insatiable demand for drugs," Johnson said. "Anybody that takes drugs -- cocaine, heroin -- and thinks it's a victimless crime, they are wrong."
He described visiting a refuge for victims of sex trafficking, a criminal enterprise largely operated by cartels, saying that many of them were only teenagers and the youngest was 11 years old. "I've seen the victims [of drug war violence]," Johnson said.
Honduras had the world's highest homicide rates per capita for noncombat zones for several years running, although El Salvador is on track to overtake it this year. Honduras had 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012, according to a 2014 report from the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. The Honduran government said the rate dropped to 66 per 100,000 people in 2014.
El Salvador has become increasingly dangerous and will, should current trends continue, pass 90 homicides per 100,000 people in 2015.
For comparison, St. Louis, the U.S. city with the highest murder rate, had 50 homicides per 100,000 people in 2014.
As many as 83 people were murdered after being deported from the United States to Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador since 2014, according to a report published by The Guardian last month.
Johnson's office did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment on his remarks and the homicide rates in those countries.
He painted a fairly positive picture of Guatemala and Honduras in a statement after the trip, although he said "there is much work to be done," particularly to stop the drug trade.
"Children in Honduras talked about their future in Honduras," he said in the Nov. 2 statement. "And Guatemalans just repatriated from the U.S. erupted in applause when welcomed back to their home country."