Reasons for mass migration of Hondurans discussed

ROCHESTER — The cause for the recent mass migration of Hondurans to the United States is multifaceted, contrary to the focus on violence that appears in the national media, according to a professor from the University of Rochester.

Daniel Reichman, who spent several years in Honduras as he conducted field research, outlined the political and economic reasons during a Sept. 3 talk hosted by the Rochester Committee on Latin America (ROCLA) at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church.

ROCLA sought to expand the conversation on the unaccompanied minor crisis because the focus seems to be border security, explained Grania Marcus, a ROCLA steering committee member.

Since many of the unaccompanied minors are from Honduras, ROCLA decided it would be good to hear from Reichman, given his expertise, Marcus said. The assistant professor of anthropology is the author of Broken Village: Coffee, Migration, Globalization in Honduras.

"That was our concern. … People needed to understand why (women and children from) these countries in particular are coming here," she added.

The United States government also has played a negative role in Central American countries, including providing military support and weaponry during their civil wars, she added, which has contributed to the violence that proliferated following those wars.

But violence is not the only on story in Honduras, said Reichman, who lived in Honduras from 2001-08. He is exhausted by news stories about Honduras that present a one-dimensional "doom and gloom" picture, he noted as he set out to present a historical narrative on current patterns.

The U.S. media present story after another on the country’s political corruption, crime, economic despair and violence, he said. Recent headlines have included: "Murder Capital of the World" and his favorite, "A Place that God Forgot."

"I tell people that I work in Honduras and I get a look of pity," he said. "Gang violence is problematic … but what else is going on here?"

And while violence has taken on a whole new dimension with the growth of femicide, he said, the proliferation of violence has been a problem since 2000.

"It has to do with the desire to inspire as much fear as possible in the Honduran population" by targeting the most innocent: women and children, Reichman said. "It is about turning violence into a spectacle."

But increased dependence on remittances from Honduran workers in the United States also has altered both the country’s culture and economy. Remittances from workers in the United States is about 20 percent of Honduras’ gross domestic product (GDP), Reichman said. Coffee production about 20 percent to 30 percent of the GDP, but many farmers continue to be mired in debt, he added.

"Migration has become since the early 2000s a powerful escape valve across the country not just in cities plagued by violence," he noted.

Honduras also is unique because migration of its citizens began later and not as a result of civil wars in the 1980s, as happened in the other countries in the region, including El Salvador and Guatemala.

Thousands of migrants poured in, however, after Hurricane Mitch hit in the late 1990s. With 2 million people displaced, the United States granted "temporary protected status" to those Honduran migrants, Reichman explained.

The 2009 military coup d’etat that ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya also has had an impact, he said. At the time, President Barack Obama had been working with the Organization of American States to prevent the coup. The Organization of American States is a regional organization of 35 states in the Americas dedicated to democracy, human rights, security and development, according to www.oas.org.

"The role of U.S. politicians who have created these regimes … don’t give people another choice than migration," he said. "The social problems they cause wind up on our doorstep."

A change in U.S. child trafficking laws also has had an impact on the increased numbers of unaccompanied minors in the United States, as immigration officials must determine if a minor is a victim before deporting the child to his or her home country. That change had created a backlog of cases even before more children began crossing the border, Reichman said.

In addition, the Honduran economy has gone into decline after years of growth, he said. And because Mexican immigration has slowed, the cost of smugglers — known as coyotes who bring undocumented immigrants across the border — is dropping, he said. So, Honduran families here are better able to pay to have family members make the journey.

"All of these factors are coming together to create the crisis we’re seeing now," he said.

Sam Donovan of Boston said that Reichman’s talk gave a more complete picture of what’s happening with the current migration flow. He was among a group of students from the University of Rochester Medical School that attended the talk.

A first-year medical student, Donovan hopes to have a career in migrant and refugee health so the topic is personally relevant, he added. He also has worked alongside undocumented workers at summer jobs in restaurants and construction.

"I’m always interested in learning more about what is driving this issue," he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: ROCLA’s migration conversation will continue on Oct. 5 with a discussion about Artesia, N.M., led by Maryknoll Father Curt Cadorette, who is the John Henry Newman Associate Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Rochester.

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