Honduran Asylum-Seeker Sees Links Between U.S. Policy and His 'Ungovernable' Homeland

2 min
Honduran asylum-seeker Saul Arzú eats a cup of soup at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana on March 8, 2019. U.S. border officials told him he must wait in Mexico for his immigration court date in San Diego. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Saúl Arzú picked his way through a double row of tents inside Juventud 2000, a makeshift migrant shelter in a gritty neighborhood of Tijuana, not far from the international border fence. He was looking for a quiet place to talk, but the din of dozens of migrant parents and children bounced off the corrugated steel roof and rang through the converted warehouse.

Arzú, 31, has been living at the shelter for nearly three months, after arriving in this border city in late January. He hopes to win asylum in the United States. He said he left his home on the Atlantic coast of Honduras last October, when he was threatened.

At a time when President Trump has declared a halt to U.S. aid for the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — and California Gov. Gavin Newsom is traveling to El Salvador to learn about the root causes of migration, Arzú said the reasons he felt he had to leave Honduras are connected with U.S. policies.

Arzú said he left home in the city of La Ceiba after gang members threatened his life. It’s a familiar story among people who have fled the homicide-plagued countries of the Northern Triangle. But Arzú said the widespread violence in Honduras ties directly back to a 2009 military coup that had the tacit support of the U.S. government.

“This caravan is like karma, because they destabilized Honduras and people had to leave,” said Arzú. “It’s an ungovernable country. You can’t report crime to the police because the police will pass your information to the criminals and the criminals will find you. Organized crime and the police are good friends.”

Honduran asylum-seeker Saul Arzú makes his way through the tents at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana on March 8, 2019. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Roots of the Crisis

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That’s a view shared by some scholars, who say the coup opened the way for greater lawlessness and the repression of dissent, including the assassination of opposition leaders and an internationally recognized environmentalist.

Dysfunction and corruption are rampant. Last fall, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández, himself a former congressman, was arrested in Miami on charges of running a major cocaine trafficking ring. And when researchers from the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., visited La Ceiba, Arzú’s hometown, in 2017, they found that the municipal government had totally collapsed, there was no electricity and employees had not been paid in eight months.

The U.S. aid programs that Trump is cutting, nearly $500 million worth, were initiated by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They have been aimed at deterring drug trafficking and migration by strengthening the economies, governance and security of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Most of the funds are channeled through non-governmental organizations.

Trump made the move voicing frustration at continuing unauthorized migration, but analysts at the Migration Policy Institute and elsewhere say the long-term solution to Central American migration is to stabilize the countries people are leaving.

A Lack of Justice and Opportunity

Honduran asylum-seeker Saul Arzú plays with a baseball at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana on March 8, 2019. He said the lawlessness in Honduras that forced him to flee began with a 2009 military coup that had the tacit support of the U.S. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Arzú said he worked as a fisherman. As he watched the political situation unravel, he dreamed of attending university to study political science. But he said he couldn’t afford the tuition and didn’t have the right political connections because he believes the government is corrupt.

Then last year Arzú said he was approached by members of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 gang, who urged him to drive them across town.

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“I said I couldn’t do it,” he recounted. “Because if you work for them once, they won’t let you quit.”

He said the gang members followed him, but he got away. When he crossed paths with them a few days later, they threatened him, and Arzú said he knew he had to leave.

“It’s not a question of, ‘Oh, I hear the United States is beautiful.’ No,” he said, choking back emotion. “To leave the country where you’ve lived your whole life? It hits hard. You don’t want to cry. You don’t want to go. But you want to survive.”

As he spoke, Arzú idly tossed a baseball from hand to hand. He looked around the spare but tidy shelter that is his temporary home. In a small kitchen, three women in hairnets shredded cabbage and carrots for the evening meal. Next to the rows of tents, kids and their parents lined up at a table for a children’s shoe giveaway, where they could try on donated sneakers.

Parents and children look through donated shoes at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana on March 8, 2019. Migrants from Central America are waiting at the shelter to apply for asylum in the United States. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

He has so far spent five months in Mexico, working his way north, but he said he doesn’t feel safe here either, having been robbed more than once. In the U.S., he said, the justice system seems more intact than in Mexico or Honduras.

“You can be killed anywhere,” said Arzú. “But if you’re killed in the United States, at least they would investigate. In Honduras? No. You’d just be a statistic.”

Waiting in Mexico

In February, after a month’s wait, Arzú got his turn at the U.S. port of entry to ask for asylum. He said Customs and Border Protection officials kept him locked in a crowded underground cell with the air conditioning blasting for four days. He said Cell No. 31 had three metal bunks but contained 15 people.

“They were the worst four days of my life,” said Arzú. “They treated me like a dog.”

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After an interview with a Customs and Border Protection agent, Arzú was returned to Tijuana to await his immigration court date in San Diego because of the Trump administration’s new Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as the “remain in Mexico” policy, for asylum-seekers.

Arzú said he keeps telephoning the U.S. legal aid groups on a list provided by border officials, but he hasn’t found anyone to help him with his case. More than 80 percent of asylum-seekers without legal representation lose their cases, while more than half of those with a lawyer win asylum, according to data analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Friday morning, Arzú will return to the border crossing and officials will drive him to the federal immigration courthouse in San Diego, where he’ll try to make his case to a judge.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

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