Starting in January, approximately 83,000 Hondurans living in the U.S. will be eligible to avoid deportation, at least for another 18 months.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Tuesday that Hondurans already qualifying for Temporary Protected Status, which was first granted to nationals of the Central American country after it was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, will soon be able to apply to extend their relief.
The exciting news for eligible Hondurans—those who have been living in the U.S. since January 5, 1999 and are already receiving TPS—comes three weeks after the White House handed down a similar extension to qualifying Liberians.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services press secretary Chris Bentley told The Daily Beast that while the relief was created based on past circumstances in both countries—for Honduras it was Hurricane Mitch, Liberia a long and gruesome civil war—new extensions are warranted by the countries’ current conditions.
Bentley could not confirm whether the recent decision to defer deportations to Liberia was prompted by the country’s status as the epicenter of the current Ebola epidemic. He simply stated, “We don’t want to send people or return people back to countries that aren’t able to take care of them.”
For its part, Honduras has been plagued by a wave of rising gang violence, which sent unprecedented numbers of adults, families, and unaccompanied minors to the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year. But in light of a report, also released Tuesday by the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, the temporary relief seems to fall short of what is really needed to address the vast number of Central American migrants fleeing chaos at home.
In the midst of this summer’s border kid crisis, the White House announced that it was considering a plan to screen Honduran minors who might be eligible for refugee status. At the time, groups like Texas’s Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) estimated that more than half of the unaccompanied minors already apprehended at the border should be eligible for humanitarian aid—and according to the U.S. Border Patrol, the majority of those kids were from Honduras.
The announcement was seen as an attempt to get in front of what was shaping up to be a mass, unauthorized exodus from the Central American country, as well as an acknowledgment of the emergency-level gang violence that seems to have prompted it. Yet less than three months later, Human Rights Watch suggests that a majority of adults, mostly mothers with children, who have completed the harrowing journey from Honduras to our border with legitimate asylum claims are not being given a fair chance to argue their case before being sent back to the dangerous environment they’d risked their lives to flee.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a mix of 35 migrants, some detained in the U.S., others recently deported to Honduras. According to the report, each one of the interviewees said they were afraid of returning home, and some of those who’d already been deported “had fear so acute that they were living in hiding, afraid to go out in public.”
One woman told HRW she fled Honduras with her 3-year-old and 10-year-old, fearing retribution after she witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of gang members. She was deported after a Border Patrol screening this August. Another man, who’d received death threats from a gang before attempting to seek refuge in the U.S., described being held in one of Customs and Border Protection’s notoriously cold detention centers for six days, during which he continuously refused to sign the deportation paperwork being pushed on him by a Border Patrol officer.
“The officer filled out all the paperwork and told me to sign I told him I wouldn’t sign and I hoped the U.S. government would admit me,” said the man, who is called ‘Mateo S.’ in the report. “He ripped up all the paper and threw it almost at my face. He told me I was deported anyway. He said he ‘had the law in his hand and he was going to sign for me.’ I told him he was violating my right to life and he said, ‘You don’t have rights here.’”
The report explains that there are two stages asylum-seekers must go through when apprehended at the border. First, a CBP agent must flag them for a “reasonable fear” assessment. In the second stage, an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will meet with them to determine whether they have a credible fear of returning home and whether they have a good chance of being granted asylum in immigration court. According to 2011 and 2012 CBP deportation data obtained by HRW, at least 80 percent of Hondurans detained at the border are placed in expedited removal proceedings while only 1.9 percent are flagged for credible fear assessments.
Comparatively, during those same years CBP flagged 21 percent of migrants from other countries for credible fear interviews. These statistics, plus the anecdotal evidence collected through more recent interviews, lead HRW to argue that “the U.S. is violating its international human rights obligations to examine asylum claims before returning [asylum seekers] to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.”
Horror stories of less than humane treatment at detention centers along the border are nothing new. If anything, the Central American migrants who have flooded the center in recent months have helped draw attention to this issue. But what the HRW report highlights is that, even after establishing that the recent surge in emigration, particularly from Honduras, can be traced to the powerful and pervasive gangs whose rule with targeted killings, kidnappings, torture, and recruitment by death threats, those seeking refuge from the world’s murder capital are being rushed into expedited removal proceedings without having the chance to pursue their asylum claims as afforded to them by U.S. and international law.
“There seems to be, at least based on the accounts that I documented of Honduran migrants and asylum seekers who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, a real desire to deport as quickly as possible,” said Clara Long, an HRW immigration researcher who authored the report.
To qualify for refugee status, Long explained, a person must demonstrate a well-founded fear of returning home based on five grounds: religion, nationality, race, political opinion, or membership to a particular social group. This doesn’t always end up protecting everyone who is in danger, however, which is why the U.S. first granted Temporary Protected Status to Liberia in 1991, in the midst of its first civil war.
“It wasn’t that they had a well-founded fear of persecution based on those specific grounds, it’s just that going back to Liberia was really, really dangerous,” Long said. With a national homicide rate (PDF) of 90.4 percent, and almost 1 in every 280 males between the ages of 30-44 murdered each year, the same could be said of Honduras.
“There seems to be this mentality held by some members of government that unauthorized border crossing is simply a crime. But if you swap out ‘gang member’ with ‘child soldier’ or ‘gang’ with ‘paramilitary group,’ these Honduran cases sound a lot like the ones we understand as deserving of international protection,” Long said. “The violence is of such proportions, and the level of protection you can receive from the state is so low that, if you receive a death threat there is really nothing you can do but flee to save your life. At a minimum, those people should not be put on the fast track to deportation.”