Devastation from storms fuels migration in Honduras
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Children pry at the dirt with sticks, trying to dig out parts of homes that have sunk below ground. Their parents, unable to feed them, scavenge the rubble for remnants of roofs to sell for scrap metal. They live on top of the mud that swallowed fridges, stoves, beds — their entire lives buried beneath them.
“We are doomed here,” said Magdalena Flores, a mother of seven, standing on a mattress that peeked out from the dirt where her house used to be. “The desperation, the sadness, that’s what makes you migrate.”
People have long left Honduras for the United States, fleeing gang violence, economic misery and the indifference of a government run by a president accused of ties to drug traffickers.
Then last fall, two hurricanes hit impoverished areas of Honduras in rapid succession, striking more than 4 million people across the nation — nearly half the population — and leveling entire neighborhoods.
“People aren’t migrating; they’re fleeing,” said César Ramos, of the Mennonite Social Action Commission, a group providing aid to people affected by the storms. “These people have lost everything, even their hope.”
President Joe Biden has insisted that the recent increase in migration to the United States is nothing out of the ordinary, just another peak in a long history of them, especially in months when the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border is cooler and more passable.
“It happens every single, solitary year,” Biden said in a news conference last month. “There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months.”
But last month, apprehensions at the southwest border of the United States hit a 15-year high, part of a sharp uptick since Biden took office.
The majority of families and unaccompanied children are coming from Honduras and Guatemala, the two countries hit hardest by the hurricanes — a sign that the president’s more welcoming policies on immigration have drawn people at a time when they are especially desperate to leave.
“It’s a detonating event that is in its own right massive,” Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said of the storms. “An event like the COVID recession, plus two hurricanes, and the potential for an even bigger spike is so much stronger.”
Eager to shift from his predecessor’s hostile stance toward migrants, Biden has proposed spending $4 billion to address the “root causes” of migration, and he recently tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to work with Central American leaders to improve conditions in those countries.
Still, Biden has sent a clear message to anyone considering crossing the border in the meantime: “Don’t come over,” Biden said in a recent interview.
The warning barely registers in parts of Honduras like Chamelecón, a sector of San Pedro Sula that is overrun by gangs and was pounded by both storms. Survivors of the disaster say they have no choice at all.
Months after the hurricanes, houses remain underwater. Gaping holes have replaced bridges. Thousands of people are still displaced, living in shelters or on the street. Hunger is stalking them.
“I never wanted to do this,” said Ana Hernández, clutching her 11-year-old son’s hand at a gas station in San Pedro Sula, the economic capital of Honduras. “The situation is forcing me to. You get to a point where you don’t have anything to give them to eat.”
Every night, busloads of people leave from the spot where she stood, many heading to Guatemala on the first leg of their journey to the United States. Hernández bought her tickets after months living in the carcass of her home, wrecked by the storms.
Mexico has begged the Biden administration to send more disaster relief aid to Central America. Biden has contended that under former President Donald Trump, “instead of going down and helping in a major way” after the disasters, “we did nothing.”
An official at the National Security Council said that the administration planned to dedicate $112 million in humanitarian assistance to communities ravaged by the storms, on top of the $61 million that had already been approved under Trump.