YORO, Honduras — As Nelly Hernandez sat on a park bench beneath a scorching noonday sun Thursday, she said it felt like a door was closing.
At 22, Hernandez had dreamed of following the trail of thousands of others who have left this town in central Honduras to head north. As many as 20 percent of Yoro’s 90,000 residents have gone to the United States, according to a rough estimate from city officials, though there are no official statistics.
But reports from the U.S. border of mass deportations and migrants being separated from their children had rattled Hernandez.
“We’ve all seen the news about the children locked up and separated from their parents,” she said. “The trip there is so dangerous and you don’t know if you will win or lose.”
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which included separating families at the border, was short-lived and is in the process of being reversed. But if its ultimate goal was to scare away people from even trying to make the trek, it seems to be working — at least in this swath of Honduras.
For generations, people from Yoro have thought of El Norte as an escape route — a place where they could flee poverty and violence and, perhaps, come back with enough money to build a life.
Making the dangerous, 1,300-mile overland trip has been “part of our culture,” said Diana Urbina, the town’s mayor.
But she believes that Washington’s hard-line might be changing that.
“Many people are holding back from going because now there’s an incredibly high chance of failure,” she said. “People sell their house and their things [to finance the trip] and then come back even poorer than when they started.”
As Mexican migration to the United States has been dropping over the last decade, the number of Hondurans, Guatemalans, and El Salvadorans heading north has spiked.
According to the Pew Research Center, Honduran migration to the United States increased by 25 percent from 2007 to 2015. About 630,000 Hondurans are living in the United States, many of them without legal documents, according to Pew.
The reasons for the exodus from Yoro, which lies about 120 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, are familiar throughout the region. For years, many people were fleeing drug and gang violence.
“We used to have massacres on the streets of Yoro in broad daylight,” said Adonai Diaz, a longtime radio reporter in town. But increased police presence and an overhaul of the judicial system have helped stem the bloodshed. Now, the pressing issues are the endemic poverty and lack of opportunities.
When Hernandez was asked what she was doing sitting in a park at midday in the middle of the week, she said “there’s absolutely no work in this town, particularly for women.”
With no career possibilities, Hernandez said she sometimes resorts to cleaning houses. In the best-case scenario, she can make 1,000 lempiras (about $40) a month.
On a trip to the region last week, Vice President Mike Pence urged Central American nations to do more to stop migrants, including stepping up border patrols and cracking down on ads for human smugglers.
“I have a message for the people of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, straight from my heart, and from the heart of the American people,” Pence warned. “If you want to come to the United States, come legally, or don’t come at all.”
Honduras has made considerable strides in creating an environment that people don’t have to flee. While it remains one of the most violent countries on the planet, by some counts it has halved its homicide rate since 2012.
The government is also rolling out economic aid and development programs and setting up offices, including in Yoro, to help deportees reintegrate into society, rather than risk a return trip to the United States.
The U.S. Agency for International Development plans to invest some $500 million in Honduras through 2022 in security, agriculture, education, and economic projects if Congress approves its budget. Among those initiatives is $17 million to help the Honduran government and international agencies reintegrate 150,000-250,000 deportees in the next five years.
The country will likely need the help. In May, the Trump administration said that 57,000 Hondurans living in the United States under Temporary Protected Status, which was granted in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1999, will have to find a new way to become legal residents or face deportation.
Nelly Jerez, who is Honduras’ sub-secretary of international relations and oversees migrant issues, said most Hondurans are no longer fleeing violence but, rather, “are looking for a better quality of life.”
Another major engine of the exodus: Hondurans living in the United States who want to be close to family.
“That’s one of the more complicated motivations , because a mother living in the United States is going to do whatever it takes to bring her child,” Jerez said.
Yet few migrants are willing to risk their child’s well-being, she said. More than 230 Honduran children were separated from their families at the border — including at least one father in Yoro — during the recent crackdown, and most have not yet been sent back, she said.
“I think we’ll see the real problems emerge years later, as we see what kind of traumas the children are left with after being separated,” she added.
The streets of Yoro reflect its agricultural roots. Vendors hawk cowboy hats and belt buckles. Rubber work boots come in children’s sizes. Most Hondurans know it for being a place where fish are said to mysteriously appear scattered across fields after summer rains and for its scandal-plagued local government. Urbina’s brother, the former mayor, is in jail on money-laundering charges.
Urbina, the current mayor, said the town is trying to encourage its residents to stay by supporting farmers with loans, creating a daycare center so mothers can work, and funding a center to help deportees reintegrate.
But Urbina’s office is competing against a powerful counter message: returning migrants who are living, walking billboards for the American dream.
Francisca Torres, 73, returned to Yoro from the United States in 2008 after having earned enough money in San Antonio, Texas, to expand her house, install new windows, wall off her garden, and live a comfortable life in the small town.
When Torres made the journey more than a decade ago, human traffickers charged $3,000 and the trek wasn’t particularly dangerous. Migrants in the United States could expect hard work but also a degree of respect.
But those days seem to be gone, she said. Now, smugglers, known as polleros, charge $7,000-$10,000, and migrants face extortion and kidnapping by Mexican gangs and deportation by the U.S. government.
When people ask her for advice about emigrating, she tells them to build their lives in Honduras.
“I tell them not to go, that it’s too dangerous,” she said. “In my time, it was so much easier and safer.”
But many feel as though they have no choice. Carlos, 42, was recently deported to Yoro after he was stopped at the Mexico-California border. He spent a month in U.S. detention, where he said the food “tasted like someone had used their feet to make it.”
Carlos wouldn’t give his last name because he’s considering trying to return to the United States. The Trump administration had probably scared away people with children from heading north, he said, but he had nothing to lose.
“People like me, traveling without children, we just want to get across,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they deport me five times.”
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