Hope and Despair: a Potent Combination in the Migrant Story

I spent about 10 days (end of April/early May) with my WOLA colleagues traveling Honduras and talking with people about migration. We witnessed exhaustion, trauma, and hope.

On Sunday morning we saw hundreds of people outside a migration office in Danlí under an intense sun, waiting for a chance to register for a migration permit. The permit lets them stay in the country for five days, plenty of time to cross Honduras. People register because without it they can’t buy a bus ticket that will take them to their next destination, the border with Guatemala. 

Those we met had just spent 11 hours on a bus that crossed Nicaragua. They looked exhausted.  All those we spoke with had crossed the greatly feared Darien Gap – the mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama (CNN documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOWthjWmS2s) once considered impassable. People had been traveling for days, weeks, even months. How long they had been on the road depended on how much money they had, and how many times they had been robbed or extorted by police or government officials along the way.

People knew, at least theoretically, the risks ahead. They had already been through the Darien Gap, and Nicaragua – which some described as a worse experience than the Darien. Guatemala is known for police extortion. Mexico is known for extortion as well, but also for robbery, kidnapping by criminal organizations and if you run out of funds, deportation. If they made it to the US border, they would wait in Mexico, many without housing, for a chance to cross legally into the US to request asylum. There is a new phone app, CPBOne, that migrants must use if they want to legally enter the US to apply for asylum. Each morning a limited numbered of slots become available. The thing is, people have been waiting in Mexican border cities for months, unsuccessfully logging in daily in search of the elusive timed entry. 

I have trouble wrapping my mind around what it takes to choose to take this journey.  If everything works out, most of these migrants are looking at minimum wage jobs in the US. 

Maybe people don’t fully appreciate the danger, even worse, maybe they do and choose to come because it is better than what they face at home. People are fleeing countries that don’t function and where they can’t feed their families – Haiti, Venezuela, and Cuba; or Honduras where gang violence and extortion threaten lives and eliminate livelihoods.

It must be some combination of despair and hope.

In the past I have written about the idea of hope and its relationship to migration.  A Honduran journalist we interviewed made an insightful comment.  He said, “People say that they leave because their country doesn’t have a future, not because they don’t.”

Much of US migration policy, in particular the “reforms” coming in the next few days, is based upon the concept of deterrence.  If we make it hard enough, people won’t migrate. What you learn from people’s stories it that they will endure unbelievable hardship to migrate. How much harder can you make it for people who are willing to walk the Darien Gap?

Deterrence might be an effective strategy when it comes to nuclear warheads, but it is not when it comes to people who don’t see a future.

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