A Honduran Family In Phoenix Explains The Violence At Home
PHOENIX — On Veronica’s dining room table in West Phoenix a Honduran newspaper announces story after story of gang-related killings.
Veronica points to one particularly shocking article: A woman murdered while praying in church.
Tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied children have left Honduras for the United States in recent months.
In fact, Veronica’s hometown of San Pedro Sula is sending the greatest number of child migrants to the United States, according to government data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
Veronica left San Pedro Sula, alone, 18 years ago. She came to the U.S. to earn money to send back to her seven children who stayed behind.
She is now 49. Here in Phoenix she sells herbal supplements and tamales. She phones her kids in Honduras every day.
Since Veronica is undocumented, she is going by her middle name for this story.
“President Barack Obama and his cabinet should be able to do something so that these children don’t have to return to Honduras,” Veronica said in Spanish.
“Deporting them would be like sending them back into a fire,” she said.
Meanwhile, though, many of the proposals out of Washington for dealing with the migrant crisis involve reforms to send Central American children back quickly to discourage more from coming.
Earlier this week, the U.S. deported the first airplane full of only women and children migrants back to San Pedro Sula.
This spring the issue became personal for Veronica, even though her own kids are all young adults by now.
In April, Veronica got a frantic call from one of her daughters in San Pedro Sula. She learned her 22-year-old son was attacked by gang members and had to flee for his life.
“I told my daughter to get him out of there, and to send him to me,” Veronica said.
Her son came to the Texas border where he was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol. He told them he was afraid to return to his country and asked to apply for asylum.
Last month, he was released from an immigration detention facility on a bond. He still must appear for his future immigration court hearings, but was allowed to take a bus to Phoenix.
When Veronica picked him up at the Greyhound station, it was the first time the two had seen each other in person in 15 years.
Veronica said his face had not changed despite the years.
“He looked sad and happy at the same time,” Veronica remembers. “We hugged and cried.”
Veronica’s son wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to be interviewed for this story. In Honduras he learned to keep his mouth shut.
But after considering the idea for a few minutes, he ultimately sat down at the dining room table and agreed to tell his story. He was scared to use his name, so we are calling him Juan.
“You can’t say anything at all, because if you talk, you can be killed right away,” Juan said in Spanish.
He is referring to the gangs that he said basically run San Pedro Sula. Juan said his fear of talking extended here in the U.S.
“You can’t trust anyone, because you never know. The world is very small,” he said.
In his young life, Juan has already seen friends, relatives and neighbors killed.
Growing up in San Pedro Sula, he and his friends tried to stay away from gangs. They preferred soccer. Up until he left, Juan had a good factory job that he liked.
But he said gangsters still tried to force him and his friends to join them. Juan said gang recruitment could extend to boys as young as 9 and 10.
In Juan's old neighborhood, the gang MS-13 has in place a well-organized extortion policy for those who work or have a business. It’s known there as a “war tax.”
“Every week you have to pay it,” Juan said, explaining there was a book that kept track of who had paid. “And if you don’t, they keep charging you. And eventually if you don’t pay they could kill you.”
Juan’s factory job meant he had to pay about 200 lempiras, or about $10, a week. That’s almost a day of work at the minimum wage.
Still, Juan says he never planned to leave Honduras until it was clear he had to.
“If I didn’t move away I was basically sure to be tortured and killed,” Juan said. "I didn’t have any choice but to leave my country."
In addition to the gangs, Juan blames the police and government for forcing him into exile.
When Fronteras Desk asked Juan what he thinks will happen to young people who tried to escape gangs by going to the U.S. but then get deported back to San Pedro Sula, he sighed deeply.
“If the U.S. doesn’t want these kids here, then they should send them somewhere else,” Juan said. “But they can’t send them home because that basically ensures their death. I plead that they send them somewhere, anywhere except Honduras.”
Juan said returning deportees are like marked men — in even more danger — because the gangs now see them as disloyal. United Nations workers and NGOs in the region have stated similar concerns.
Juan is awaiting his immigration court case here in Phoenix and is hoping he won’t be sent back.
The statistics for asylum claims from Honduras adjudicated in immigration court reveal it won't be easy.
Last year, immigration judges granted 92 Hondurans asylum and rejected 525, according to statistics from the Executive Office of Immigration Review.
Meanwhile, Juan is getting to know Phoenix, and the mother he only knew by phone before.
Veronica sat down beside Juan at the table. Her voice quiet, she asked Juan for his forgiveness for being separated for so long.
“There’s always forgiveness for a mother,” Juan told Veronica.
But this family reunion is bittersweet.
When Juan came here, he had to leave behind his own 2-year-old daughter in San Pedro Sula.
So this family’s pattern of separation continues, as does the violence swallowing up their hometown.