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San Pedro Sula is the deadliest city in Honduras, a country that already has the highest per capita murder rate in the world. Many of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have been detained for illegally crossing the U.S./Mexico border hail from this city's violent barrios, or neighborhoods; they flee to escape poverty, retribution for not joining gangs or not paying extorters' fees.
"There are no opportunities here. They die, they leave for the United States or they become criminals," says Dr. Hector Hernandez, the man in charge of the San Pedro Sula morgue. He says at least five youths, recently deported from the United States to Honduras, have been murdered during the past week in his city. "They range in ages from 12 to 18. They died as a result of gunshot wounds. After interviewing the relatives who came to claim the bodies, they told us the victims had recently returned from the United States. Some were deported by land at the border, others by air."
"We have been warning policy makers in the administration about exactly this," says Sheena Wadhawan, an immigration attorney with CASA de Maryland. "To expedite removal is to deny due process, and to deport these children back to the conditions from which they're running means certain death. While we've been proven right, it's a sad and shameful moment for us."
The fear of "death by deportation" in Honduras haunts 20-year-old Jennifer. She and her 6-year-old son Oscar were detained after illegally crossing the U.S./Mexico border a few months ago. She wears an electronic ankle bracelet as she waits for an immigration judge to decide their fate.
"We suffered so much to get here and almost died in the desert, all to be sent back to be killed by the gangs," Jennifer says. She and Oscar are among the tens of thousands of recently detained Central Americans whose futures depend on an immigration court system backlogged with nearly 380,000 cases.
"The surge at the border has pushed us from overwhelmed into absolute crisis and dysfunction mode," says Judge Dana Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. Marks says the decision by the Obama administration to expedite the cases for undocumented minors and single-mother units is concerning many of the judges her association represents.
"Children are special. They are different. They are a more vulnerable population, and so their cases need to go more slowly," Marks says. But immigration judges have little discretion in many of these cases. Coming from an extremely violent country is not enough to qualify for refugee status or asylum under existing laws.
Wadhawan says the White House does have an option. "There is absolutely a solution that we've been proposing and advocating for months, which is to provide humanitarian parole for these children until the conditions are such in their country that being deported does not mean that you're dead."
But those who support a strong stance against illegal immigration, such as Mark Krikorian with the Center for Immigration Studies, disagree. "The idea that someone who is deported ends up losing his life back home does not automatically mean that everyone in that situation should be automatically allowed to stay," says Kerkorian. "This is a recipe for the abolition of immigration laws."
Speaking of immigration laws, Dr. Hernandez offers some advice to U.S. immigration judges considering the deportation of Hondurans. "They should think carefully before deporting them, because many will end up dead in this morgue," he says.
Dr. Hernandez had to cut his interview with us short. Earlier that day, 12 people waiting to claim bodies—including one of a man Honduras news reports linked to criminal gangs—were machined-gunned outside his morgue. Nine died. Hernandez says it was a massacre.