Danger on la bestia, “the beast.”
Understanding the Crisis in Honduras
by Melissa Bowe
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of joining a delegation from the General Board of Church and Society to the Honduras Annual Conference, a mission initiative coordinated by the General Board of Global Ministries. My specific role was to provide a workshop for pastors and lay leaders throughout Honduras on US asylum law, special immigrant juvenile status, and border enforcement. Our larger vision was to listen to the Honduran people our media outlets and politicians have reduced to statistics—and learn
what is actually happening on the ground in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The Search for Freedom
Just days before the trip, planned raids on Central American women and children were beginning back in the United States. For us, our nation’s haphazard and disturbing raids on families fleeing violence was juxtaposed with stories from those very families in Honduras who sought safety and refuge in the United States. They told us of their community’s desperation and yearning for peace from gang violence; for work; for freedom from fear of harassment, torture, and death.
We heard stories of children fleeing from Honduras in the middle of the night to get to Mexico or the United States. A father’s voice broke as he told us of his 13-year-old son, Juan Pablo, who hadn’t left his house for three months because the gangs wouldn’t leave him alone at his school. The father, having been seriously injured himself when he attempted the trip to the United States in 2003, knew all too well what dangers lay ahead for his son.
Others elaborated on the injuries their countrymen came home with, many sustained on la bestia (the beast) the infamous freight train that snakes through Mexico to the US border. Many migrants take their chances at hitching rides on the beast despite oft-repeated horror stories. The surging wheels can slice through people who slip while trying to jump onto moving boxcars or who fall off the train while asleep. Thieves go from car to car with machetes and guns, and there are also night raids by Mexican law enforcement.
After hearing many such stories, I conducted a two-hour training session on American immigration law for 50 pastors and lay leaders. My focus was on asylum law as it affects adults and parents with children arriving at the US/Mexico border. Many Hondurans did not even know that the United States has asylum laws and that it is legal to present oneself at our nation’s border and ask for sanctuary from persecution.
I also explained US laws pertaining to unaccompanied minors, pointing out how the options for relief for children are sometimes different from those for adults. For instance, depending on circumstances, unaccompanied children who are abused, abandoned, or neglected by their guardian(s) can apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. That puts a child on the pathway to a green card. However, such children can never petition for green cards for their parents, and they can petition for their siblings only after they have become United States citizens themselves.
After first discussing the laws, we broke into small groups to strategize about ways to organize Honduran communities and congregations in response to the migration crisis. Some participants proposed counseling young people and their parents on the many dangers along the migration routes. Others vowed to share the information they had learned during the legal presentation, helping to provide more people with the many resources we discussed and made available at the training. Further steps included creating a way for everyone to keep in touch across the country, making it easier to share resources among the congregations.
In addition to leading the workshop on migration, our delegation visited three Methodist congregations in and around the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa. On these excursions we learned that the major problems these villagers experience are the same ones faced by most Hondurans: families already broken because of some members’ migration, a lack of medical assistance, extreme poverty, and rampant gang violence. We learned that some of the Honduran United Methodist churches are at the forefront of the action, providing a safe place for their communities to come together, heal, and renew a sense of hope. The grounds of one church we visited included a school, a computer lab, art space, a medical clinic, and a low-cost pharmacy. Without this medical clinic, community residents would have to travel at least an hour to find medical care—and at double the price.
Yet we also visited an incredibly poor church in a gang-run village. To enter this village, we had to make sure our faces and hands were visible and that we didn’t inadvertently look anyone in the eyes. Gang members were watching us as we drove through the streets and up to the church. We found a tremendous spirit at this beleaguered church, but there was also a sense of brokenness, given the profound violence, poverty, and ongoing migrations it faced.
As US citizens and people of faith, we have to recognize the situation in Honduras as a humanitarian and refugee crisis—one involving a very vulnerable population. Our response cannot be a mere matter of border security and immigration enforcement. I encourage all of us to learn more about the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America and to share that knowledge with others.
Melissa Bowe is the Program and Advocacy Manager for the National Justice for Our Neighbors organization. NJFON supports a hospitality ministry that welcomes immigrants by providing affordable, high-quality immigration legal services to low-income immigrants, engaging in advocacy for immigrant rights, and offering education to communities of faith and to the public. This article was adapted from an earlier version online: http://njfon.org/.
About 50 pastors and lay leaders in Honduras broke into small groups to discuss strategies and good practices concerning US Immigration Law. Photo: Courtesy NJFON