Commentary: Why Honduran children are coming to U.S.

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These days, there is extensive reporting on children crossing the border and entering the United States undocumented. It is said that U.S. immigration services have intercepted in the past year more than 50,000 undocumented children.

A few days ago, I was in Texas visiting Methodist communities on the border, both Anglo and Hispanic. I also visited a shelter where I had a chance to talk, see and learn different points of view.

In the United States, some see this humanitarian disaster as a policing and security problem, and argue for more border controls, more laws that allow police to quickly deport these children. Others want a more humane and compassionate response.

Since a large number of children crossing the border are from Honduras, you ask me, as United Methodist superintendent of Honduras: How can the United Methodist Mission in Honduras bring understanding and solution to this humanitarian crisis?

It is hard to imagine that these children leave home to undertake such a dangerous, long and expensive trip.

The first thing I can answer is obvious, that the kids go because their parents live in the U.S., and they leave Honduras because there are no opportunities, no dignity. They leave because here there is hunger, violence and poverty. But maybe it's good to reflect a little on the causes of poverty in Honduras.

Wealth and exploitation

The first foreigner to set foot on Honduran soil was Christopher Columbus and was amazed at the wealth and fertility,but after five centuries this wealth has never been for the service of the Honduran people.

In the 19th century in Honduras, the term "banana republic" was born because the Americans in the late 18th century installed banana plantations in the style of the slave plantations in the southern U.S. And until today the owners of the best lands are American banana and small Honduran elites living in the U.S. and exploiting the land renter mentality, in order to get resources, without reinvesting in the country.

In the 19th century, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras was next to the largest gold mine in the Americas, in San Juancito. People wonder why the embassy was away from the capital city and next to a gold mine. Simple: because there were American corporations that exploited these mines. Honduras is poor because the wealth of this country was taken and not reinvested here.

Today, neither the banana nor gold is the main generator of foreign exchange, nor coffee, nor the cultivation of African palm. Today, the largest source of dollars entering the country is by way of remittances from undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In economic terms, the poor who migrate are today the greatest wealth of Honduras, because the U.S. needs cheap labor to harvest crops and construct buildings. The dollars that undocumented migrants send to their families are dollars that move the Honduran economy. It is a paradox.

Why are the children coming?

Back to children crossing the border. They do so because their parents live in the U.S., and they live in the U.S. because there is too much poverty in Honduras. These parents may not return for their children because they only have enough money to pay the coyotes and illegally cross the border.

The other reason why the kids go is because Mexican coyotes made illegal border crossing a business.

There are networks, and coyotes have their emissaries throughout Central America. In the past two years, these coyote networks have circulated information suggesting that children only have to cross the border and the U.S. authorities are responsible for bringing to them where their parents are.

Actually this information is correct. Honduran migrants know that once they cross the U.S. border, they are treated with more compassion than in the Mexican part. It is common in the Mexican portion for migrants to be kidnapped and women to be raped and killed.

In our United Methodist churches in Honduras, we know of several terrible cases. In days gone by, a fellow United Methodist in Ciudad España had to sell his house to pay a network of smugglers who kidnapped one of his children. When the boy was released, he described how another boy was killed in his presence while his parents were on the phone, to intimidate them and force them to sell their properties in Honduras to pay the ransom.

It is common for young women to take contraceptives during the trip to the border, to prevent pregnancy when raped.

Despite everything that involves undertaking a long journey (almost a month) so dangerous and so expensive ($ 6,000 in some cases), many Honduran parents in the U.S. prefer to give their children to these networks of coyotes, hoping to reunify the family.

The separation of families is also a humanitarian crisis, although little is mentioned. We are called to help children and adolescents in the transition to adulthood. There is a generation growing up in Honduras with the trauma of growing up without a father and a mother.

The other reason that children undertake this dangerous journey is the violence that exists in Honduras. It is a localized violence in urban areas and in the most marginalized and poor neighborhoods. The gangs capture the children from 10 to 12 years, and once the children are part of the gangs, they can never leave. There are codes of value, where if you get out of the gang, it is considered a betrayal that is paid with life.

Children are killed in the street

The United Methodist Mission in Honduras has communities in high risk areas that have personally had experiences where you can see the fear with which these communities live in. One Sunday a year ago in San Pedro, in Faith Methodist Church, two boys were killed in the street outside the building when the service began. The children in the choir cried inconsolably. As they left the church, they discovered they had family members who had just died.

On another occasion I visited a very marginal neighborhood, La Primavera, in San Pedro, for a day of door-to-door evangelism, but I found that many houses were empty and are barred to visitors because that week saw a massacre. The gang members went to some houses and forcibly removed young kids to kill them in the street.

Recently, also in another of our churches, Fuerzas Unidas, in  a very marginal area of Tegucigalpa, a group of heavily armed gang members entered the church during the Sunday service. They were shooting and looking for someone who supposedly had hidden in the temple. Finally, there were only minor injuries and some that fainted from fear and anxiety. Now, our church in Fuerzas Unidas has decided to hold their services with the temple doors closed to prevent these cases. 

Last year in Fuerzas Unidas, a stray bullet shattered the spine of a boy who sings in the choir. The boy, named Alonso, is 17 and and is now invalid.

Violence in Honduras is very focused. But for parents who live in the U.S. and whose children live in a marginalized urban eighborhood, this violence and the phenomenon of gangs is a constant source of concern. It is true, as the media report, that 70 percent of Honduran migrant children, who have been arrested in the last year in the U.S., come from violence-hit areas (as the president of Honduras said last week).

According to the United Nations, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world. This violence is the phenomenon of gangs, which are highly organized. Gangs weave networks through several cities and countries, and are fueled by drug trafficking.

Most of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. passes through Honduras. Mexican drug cartels collect the drug in Honduras, mainly from Colombia. Honduran gangs provide "security" for the drug cartels. Children are recruited by gangs in high-risk urban neighborhoods, who find in the gangs a family of "blood" covenant. Children living with hunger and without opportunities suddenly feel strong and powerful when they belong to a gang.

In conclusion, I think the drama of children crossing the border every day in the United States, has to do primarily with the poverty and injustice that Honduras has endured for centuries. Children travel seeking the reunification of their families, travel because networks of coyotes are all over the Central American triangle trading in this human dram.

And these children also travel because the drugs consumed in the United States leave a trail of pain and death throughout the Central American triangle.

After the previous diagnosis, may we ask: What can we do?

The best way to respond

The United Methodist Mission in Honduras is under the supervision of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, I'm just a missionary appointed and sent by them. The Mission in Honduras is growing. In three and a half years that I've been in Honduras, I can say that the membership has doubled. There is much joy. We have 19 congregations across Honduras and an attendance each week of more than  2,000 people.

About 500 volunteers from the U.S. visit our mission each year.  Through these volunteers in mission and their work of our communities, we have not only built temples and parsonages but also now offer programs such as community kitchens for more than 200 children, scholarships for more than 1,000 children, water purification systems, rural projects of planting corn and many medical and dental clinics.

We have never had any security problems with groups visiting us, and we were able to serve the poor with all our strength.

This year, 2014, we started the first United Methodist school in Honduras. We started with 230 children, many of whom have parents living in the United States. But we have also had to close day cares for poor children in high-risk communities because of lack of resources.

We also have closed soup kitchens because of lack of resources. We had to close clinics in our churches because of lack of resources. We always want to do more.

I think the best way to respond to this humanitarian crisis, is to try to see what happens on both sides of the border and be as generous as we can.

It is good to remember that our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate in the world as a migrant, and because Herod sought to kill him, he had to flee to Egypt.

Also the first Christian community had to meet in private because of fear. We are all God's people and called to express solidarity and feel this human drama with heart. God hears us all but decided to side with the poor. 

In Christ Jesus.

*Guerrero, Ph. D., is superintendent of the United Methodist Mission in Honduras. To learn more about him and contact him

This commentary was submitted by retired Bishop Elías G. Galván, the assigned bishop to the Honduras mission. 

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