Late last week, Obama rolled out a proposal to start processing refugee status applications from young, would-be migrants in Honduras before they make the treacherous northbound journey (NYT). The pilot plan, which could be expanded to El Salvador and Guatemala, envisions receiving around 5,000 refugee applications and accepting 1,750 of them over the first two years, at a cost of $47 million. Alec MacGillis applauds:
There is no shortage of questions that immediately spring to mind. Doesn’t 5,000 applicants seem awfully low, given that since October 1 more than 16,500 minors have traveled to the U.S. border from Honduras alone? How would the U.S. personnel at the embassy in Tegucigalpa decide which young applicants were so threatened by gang violence that they qualified for the coveted status and entry to the U.S.? What would this new approach mean for the young Central Americans who already made the risky journey to the U.S. in recent months?
But the proposal comes with two clear benefits, one substantive and one political. First, it is a big step toward addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis: It will deter at least some young people from making the dangerous trip, thereby reducing demand for the migrant traffickers who are profiting off the children’s desperation. … Shifting the entry point for at least some of the young Central Americans to their countries of origin will hopefully redefine the problem as what it is: a challenge to our country’s laws and policies on asylum, which as now written do not directly address the plight of young people in gang-ravaged societies; and, more broadly, a reckoning with our responsibility to our southern neighbors.
But Roberto Ferdman outlines why the proposal won’t be enough on its own and could have unintended consequences:
The current proposal, which assumes that some 5,000 children will apply in Honduras, would cost nearly $50 million over the course of two years. And Guatemala and El Salvador might see a similar program implemented if the pilot is deemed successful. But less than 2,000 children would be selected from those that apply in Honduras. That’s a mere fraction of the more than 16,000 that have been apprehended at the U.S. border this year (and the thousands more that are likely still in transit).
There’s also the potential for confusion over the definition of the word refugee. The U.S. launched similar screening programs in Vietnam in the 1970s and in Haiti in the 1990s. But those were set up in the aftermath of a war and devastating hurricane, respectively. “There’s serious worry that if the proposal is enacted it will stretch the current meaning of the word refugee,” [Columbia University political scientist Carlos] Vargas-Ramos said.
Why Honduras, any way? Well, because it’s the worst off:
Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world. According to the latest report from the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, the Central American nation saw 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012. The majority of the violence in Honduras is carried out by two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18. Both were created in Los Angeles by Salvadoran immigrants, between 2001 and 2010. The U.S. deported more than 100,000 convicted members of both gangs back to Central America, where corrupt law enforcement and political instability—particularly in Honduras, which underwent a coup d’état in 2009—allowed them to spread out and take control of entire cities, kidnapping, torturing, and brutally murdering anyone standing in their way. San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second largest city and a gang stronghold, is considered the most dangerous city in the world. According to the CIA World Factbook, Honduras had 17,000 refugees or people displaced within the country as a result of extortions, threats, or forced gang recruitment in 2013.
Jeremy Relph reports from the country’s Bajo Aguán region, where land disputes and government corruption are keeping the violence going:
These days Bajo Aguán is virtually off-limits to the country’s army and police. Campesinos have been the victims of private security and government forces, and the Honduran government has done little to halt it. The ruling right-wing National Party protects rich landowners. They’ve focused on maintaining security and addressing violence with force. The left paints the campesinos as victims and pacifists. At stake is fertile land, and massive profits.
Bajo Aguán is the rural center for palm oil production and land rights battles. Palm oil is in everything from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Johnson’s baby shampoo to Pringles. During the last decade, large energy companies like BP have begun heralding palm oil as the next green biofuel. Across Africa the spread of plantations has threatened chimpanzees with extinction. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s leading producers, its extraction is linked to human rights abuse. Honduras is no different.
In an interview with Susan Glasser, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández articulates his understanding of how the American drug war has contributed to his country’s crisis and what the US should do differently:
We all share responsibility, from those who produce the drug to the transit countries, but also the country that uses the drugs. And the United States is the great consumer of the drugs. The advantage that you have here—if you can call it an advantage—is that the violence has been separated from the transit of drugs. That’s why for many officials and public servants the drug problem in the United States is one of public health. In Central America, the drug problem is life or death. That’s why it’s important that the United States assume its responsibility. … A Central America at peace, with less drug violence, and with opportunities, is a great investment for the United States. On the contrary, if they are only investing in border security and not in the source of the problem, in the genesis of the problem, then we will have more of the same.