Healing Honduras: U.S. Ambassador Sees New Strategies For Stemming Illegal Immigration

Aug 18, 2015

President Obama is asking Congress for $1 billion in new aid for Central America – especially violence-plagued countries like Honduras. One big goal is to reduce the massive waves of illegal immigration to the U.S., which we’re seeing in South Florida.

While in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa last week, I spoke with U.S. Ambassador James Nealon about how the Administration hopes to make this plan work – and about Washington’s growing realization that solving illegal immigration means improving conditions at its source rather than building walls at our border.

RELATED: Honduran Hilarity: Why Obama's $1 Billion For Central America Is Risky. And Urgent.

Excerpts:

I’d like to start by going back to last year, when we had tens of thousands of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America showing up on the U.S. border. How was last summer’s immigration crisis a wake-up call for Americans about the crisis of poverty and especially violence in Central American countries like Honduras?

This is an especially poignant question for me, because I was nominated and confirmed as ambassador last summer, during the height of the unaccompanied children crisis. So this was very much on my mind, and I was told to get down to Honduras and do whatever I could to help stem that flow. And I can say that a year later, at least in the case of Honduras, the number of unaccompanied children reaching our border is down over 75 percent.

We have to address the push factors that drive emigration. We have to offer people hope so they see their future here in Honduras and not elsewhere. – James Nealon

We’ve seen a crackdown – quite a significant crackdown – on Mexico’s part, though, in terms of turning them back before they get to the U.S. border. Does it worry you that we’re still seeing large numbers who want to make the trek?

I might disagree with you on that, Tim. While the Mexicans have certainly played an important role, I think what we’re seeing now is all the countries in the region, which of course includes the United States, working together, trying to offer opportunities at home so that people don’t make this dangerous trip to the United States.

About two-thirds of Hondurans still live in poverty. And as a result, kids in Honduras often have only two options: be a gang member – or a gang victim – or escape to the U.S. So when you look at President Obama’s request, what do you feel are the most important components?

I believe you were up in San Pedro Sula recently and saw some of the programs we’re doing there with our Honduran partners in some of the most conflictive areas – areas that have been overrun by violence in recent years and are great sources of emigration to the United States.

What we’re trying to do is work with those communities – work with the citizens themselves, work with the police, the private sector, faith-based organizations, and try and make those communities safer. Identify the at-risk children, offer them economic opportunities, offer them educational opportunities – offer them hope, so that they see their future here in Honduras and not elsewhere.

A Central American toddler migrant lifted onto a Mexican freight train known as The Beast during his family's trek to the U.S. in 2014.
Credit KEITH DANNEMILLER / PHOTO COURTESY OF THE INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR MIGRATION. ©2014 IOM

Our outreach centers become platforms for a lot of things. First of all, it’s a safe place for children to go. Second, we can offer vocational training, language training, computer training. We’re also working hard with the Ministry of Education here to improve access to education. In the past year, the number of days Honduran kids spend in school has gone from an average of about 90 a year to an average of about 200 a year. So we think this is going to be a virtuous cycle going forward.

In recent years Honduras has suffered the world’s worst murder rate. The country has a horrific gang problem. But the political and business elite always seemed to balk at improving its police and judicial systems. Have they finally gotten on board with things like police reform?

Yes. And coincidentally, the government just presented a plan to reform the civilian police that we had been intimately involved in helping them develop.

Honduras historically has been under-policed, and so we’re working with them very closely to help them improve both the size and the quality of the police. For example, we are working very closely with the civilian police now to develop a state-of-the-art investigative arm, because that’s really the first step in the process of addressing impunity, which is a big problem here.

We all know the narrative of Honduras as the most violent country in the world, but that has changed. The level of other crimes, which really affect average citizens even more than the murder rate – things like extortion and kidnapping, those indicators are coming way down as well.

A Honduran soft-drink maker told me recently that in the past year, they’ve found 2,000 additional mom-and-pop stores where they can distribute their product. So people are opening new businesses without fear of being run out by the gangs. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep people here.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.