Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Riding the train of death from Honduras

Every couple of days, a plane carrying discouraged Hondurans lands in San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa. 
They aren’t business travellers, or returning tourists. They’re deportees, caught living illegally in the United States, or trying to cross the border.
It’s the only time in their lives most will be on a plane.
And it’s an incredible contrast to their travels on their outbound journey - walking, hopping a Mexican freight train called ‘La Bestia,’ risking life and savings on a 3,100-kilometre overland odyssey through Guatemala and Mexico.
The numbers are staggering. So far this year, about 17,800 Hondurans have been deported by air from the U.S. - 660 a week. Another 15,700 have been sent back by bus from Mexico. More than a thousand people, every week who have travelled a huge distance and braved terrors for a better life.
No one knows how many more Hondurans make it across the border, but the U.S. government estimates one million are living there, 60 per cent of them “undocumented.” Most people I’ve talked to have a relative in the U.S., or recently returned.
The numbers, taken together, show a great migration - perhaps 275,000 a people leaving a year for a chance to make some money in the U.S.
It’s different from previous waves of immigrants to North America.
The border is supposedly closed and the migrants are illegal. They can be deported anytime, which makes them much less likely to put down roots. A few take children, but the journey is so dangerous most leave families here, and plan to return when they have made enough money.
Predators rape, rob and kill migrants, or kidnap them and demand ransoms from their families - typically $300 to $500. Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights reports 11,000 immigrants were kidnapped in 2010.
People die in the desert, or fall from the trains, where they cling to the roof and between cars. (Authorities have decided it’s easier to let desperate migrants ride the Beast and other trains than deal with thousands of them trying to walk to the U.S.)
Some pay coyotes to help with the journey - some $2,000 just for the final stage across the U.S.-border, often with money borrowed at high interest rates.
It’s dangerous and desperate. But it’s just part of life here for many Hondurans.
Many make the journey, work in construction or restaurants in the U.S., and then return to Hondurans, at least for a family visit. Though that means another dangerous trek northward if they choose to try to make it back to North America.
Life would be even tougher here without the migrants. They sent $240 million a month back to their families in Honduras in the first six months of this year. That’s 17 per cent of GDP - more than the contribution from any industry, six times as much as the banana exports.
But nothing comes without a price. People have to choose. Stay with your family, in poverty, or cut ties with them for two or five or 10 years, risk your life, and send money home. 
U.S. anthropologist Daniel Reichman wrote The Broken Village, a look at a small coffee community in Honduras. He noted the stresses as people balance the importance of family with the chance to make money in the U.S., and the jealousies when one family’s ‘ambición’ - not seen as a positive attribute here - provides a flashy house or new car. 
And then the inevitable cases when someone fails to make good in the U.S., or turns his back on those life behind.
Reichman notes another aspect of all this. Governments and corporations have pushed free trade for goods and capital, eliminating borders. But for people - workers and families - there is no such freedom to move from country country.
Canada signed a free trade agreement with Honduras last year, but immigrating is still almost impossible for Hondurans. (Although La Prensa reported last month that some 25,000 Hondurans are living “el sueño canadiense” - the Canadian dream. About 15,000 of them have legal resident status; most of the rest are working on it.)
I don’t know what it all means. I am struck by the contrasts. 
My grandparents packed up and headed to Canada to find better lives. It was brave, but they were welcomed and didn’t risk their lives. We’ve turned into a much meaner, more fearful country.
Then there is the contrast between some 250,000 people looking for a better life, and Canadian hysteria over a few hundred Chinese migrants travelling in rusty boats, posing absolutely no real risks.
And I’m troubled on another level.
For a Cold War kid, there is something familiar in the desperate risks Hondurans are willing to take to get to the U.S. It evokes those grim images of East Germans tangled in barbed wire, shot dead as they tried to scale the Berlin Wall.
And who is condemning the desperate to death today?


Anonymous said...

Great post Paul.
There's a number of issues surrounding the subject of migration and all are embedded with the irony that a box of lemons has a greater opportunity to travel across borders than many people.
In this part of the world, as you know, there's the constant use of foreign labour as a means of undermining whatever power workers might have. I find it galling that industry associations are constantly making noise about finding "skilled workers" (especially in the trades), but oddly enough, they can't seem to figure out that offering higher wages or a better, more consistent approach to apprenticeship programs in BC might actually do the trick. Instead, we get stories about the government issuing work visas to foreigners to work on things like the Canada Line.
It's the age old "pit the workers against the workers" trick.

paul said...

The temporary worker program is troubling, especially because it has expanded so dramatically without discussion. I note business leaders are always keen on allowing market forces to prevail - except when market forces would compel them to raise wages to attract workers. Then they want to allow temporary workers from other lands.
That's a big change. We used to welcome people to stay; now we allow them to work for two years, and send them packing. (Though some provinces have taken steps to support permanent residency for temporary workers seeking it.)
On the other hand, those temporary jobs are much sought after here, as I wrote about a few months ago -