Fear of deportation still haunts Hondurans, even after extension of amnesty program

Parishioners at Our Lady of Victory church in Claremont, where many Hondurans pray. Photo: Paula Moura

End of Temporary Protected Status spells uncertainty for one of area’s biggest ethnic groups

The couple from Honduras hugged, kissed and prayed together one morning in January in their Melrose home. Maria said goodbye to her husband, Alberto at 6:30 a.m. (Both 39, they declined to give their real names because they are undocumented.) While he rode the subway to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she helped their son get ready for his college admissions exam.

As the hours passed, the couple exchanged text messages. They chatted while she waited for their son to get out of the college admission test. One of the last messages read, “Love, I’m going to miss you.”

About 1 p.m, the messages suddenly stopped. Their son finished the test at 2, and they got in their car to drive home. “That hour was like a day,” she said, saying she couldn’t stop looking at her phone. Then her husband’s lawyer called with the news she didn’t want to hear. Alberto had been arrested and could be deported in the coming months. He had been deported once before and now sits in the Hudson County Correctional Facility, possibly to be deported again.

The family is one of a growing number of Honduran immigrants with mixed immigration status who could be split by deportation or return together to a country that no longer feels like home. About 3,000 Hondurans in New York City are under Temporary Protection Status (TPS), a protection from deportation that allows immigrants to work in the U.S. after a natural disaster or armed conflict, according to city data. According to U.S. census data, there were 4,814 Honduran-born residents living in Bronx Community Districts 1 and 2, including Mott Haven and Hunts Point, as of 2016—about three percent of the total population of the neighborhoods.

The U.S. government issued TPS for Hondurans after Hurricane Mitch hit their country in 1998. This year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extended TPS for Hondurans until July 5 but ended it for Haitians and Nicaraguans. After July, DHS can end the status for Hondurans, too.

But thousands of others in New York State – including this couple — are undocumented. Their fate is unclear. Maria, who is attending college, may be deported if she’s caught.

Maria and Alberto’s son, 18, is covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which is now in jeopardy. In the meantime, he has taken over his father’s business, a snack-and-beverage delivery truck. Two American-born daughters are 9 and 4. What happens to them if the rest of the family is deported is Maria’s biggest fear.

“At night, I can’t sleep,” says Maria. “I have a lot of pain in my body because of the stress. And I have to be strong for my children.”

The number of undocumented immigrants like Maria from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala increased by 25 percent from 2007 to 2015 in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2015, 630,000 Honduran immigrants were in the U.S., documented and undocumented.

Most of them have come here for economic reasons, but also to escape violence in their home countries. In 2005, when Maria and Alberto left Honduras, the murder rate was 35 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Igarape Institute, a violence watchdog in Latin America; in 2017, the rate rose to 46 per 100,000.

When Maria crossed the Mexican border with her son, then 5, she was afraid of retaliation from criminals because her brother-in-law used to be a policeman in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Gang members had taken her other brother-in-law to a place called “Death Street” and beaten him up as a warning to the family, she says. Her husband had also been threatened verbally. Even though they were fleeing violence, they were not covered by TPS, which applies only to people who immigrated after Hurricane Mitch.

Arrests surge

The Trump administration’s changes on immigration policies have increased the risk of deportation not only for people under TPS or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), but also for other undocumented immigrants. ICE arrests are increasing all over the country — even in cities like New York that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities.”

ICE arrested 2,976 undocumented immigrants in New York City in 2017, a 69 percent increase from 1,762 in 2016. Figures for 2018 so far are not yet available, but activists say they have seen a spike in arrests. In Mott Haven, the nonprofit Mexican Coalition, located at the Immaculate Conception church, is following the rise. In the last few months it has been helping with paper work in three arrests and 12 other cases related to immigration.

“They are tearing apart families; they are hurting the children,” says Jairo Guzmán, founder of the coalition, based at the Immaculate Conception Church in Mott Haven, where many Hondurans worship. “The Virgin de Guadalupe is here. We see more and more people come to pray that things get better, somehow not to lose all hope.”

So many undocumented Hondurans constantly fear deportation. They have been forced to change the way they live. Maria stays at home more, she says, and tries to entertain her children with drawings and games.

“When I go to the subway, I always look around and see if ICE is there,” she says.
The subway is also the place where she catches herself crying before regaining the energy to go to college or back home.

Maria knows she needs help and knocked on the doors of some nonprofit organizations to ask for it.  But they told her they were overwhelmed with pleas for help and could not help her husband seek asylum. So she hired her own immigration lawyer. The cost will be an extra burden, but the couple doesn’t see any other option. Initial cost is more than $10,000. She has some savings and received some help from family and friends, but she is also considering borrowing money. “I will do everything I can for him,” she says.

Meanwhile, she waits, and worries, and misses her husband. On a recent Sunday, a line from a famous Guatemalan song, “Realmente no estoy tan solo” (“I’m Really Not Alone”), spoke deeply to Maria’s heart, especially the line “One is not where his body is but where one is missed.”

In her apartment, Maria’s eyes well up as she lies in the bed she shared with her husband, the song playing in her mind. Eventually, she draws on any strength she can to get up and start cleaning the bedroom.

“In my life,” she says, “I learned when you have a test from God, a problem teaches you to be stronger.”

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