Trump's TPS decision undercuts US goals in Honduras

Trump's TPS decision undercuts US goals in Honduras
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The Trump administration announced on May 4 it was ending Temporary Protected Status for more than 50,000 Hondurans who have been allowed to live and work in the United States for nearly 20 years, even though the State Department warned that such a move could destabilize the region and trigger a new wave of immigration. 

While the original justification for TPS — the ravages of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 — may be over, the current conditions in Honduras are more dangerous than they were a generation ago. 


Ending TPS for Hondurans had been under consideration since last year, following similar decisions to end TPS for nearly half a million people from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Nepal. Nonetheless, it's hard not to see the timing of last week's announcement as linked to the furor over the Central American migrant "caravan" camped out on the San Diego-Tijuana border. The caravan was comprised mainly of migrants from Honduras seeking asylum.  


Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen's statement terminating TPS for Hondurans asserts that conditions in that country have improved. That's only partly true.

It is true that homicide rates in Honduras dropped last year, due to crime prevention programs, a national police purge and reform, and efforts to dismantle large-scale criminal networks.

Yet, gang violence remains out of control, with entire communities living in fear. The justice system is incapable of acting as a lawful deterrent to crime or providing an effective remedy to victims, and deep-rooted corruption in state institutions remains rampant.  

On top of this, Honduras is submerged in its most severe political crisis in almost 10 years. Increased political repression has been added to the already toxic mix of risks in the country, pushing people to make the perilous trek northward and making them fearful of being forced to return.   

Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández took office for a second term in January after one of the most questioned elections in Latin America in years. Until last year, Honduras had a constitutional prohibition on presidential reelection beyond a single term. In 2009, then sitting president Manuel Zelaya expressed interested in changing that constraint, hoping to be reelected. That was enough to justify a coup that took him down.

This time, Hernández changed the composition of the Constitutional Court, which then declared the constitutional restriction invalid. He won reelection in November 2017 by the slimmest of margins — around 50,000 votes — in a process marked by numerous irregularities, including the shutdown of the counting and verification process for some 36 hours. The U.S. moved quickly to recognize the deeply questioned results and congratulate Hernández, despite the irregularities and controversy, with a policy objective of preserving stability.

Angry demonstrations racked the country for weeks, some turning violent. The U.N. Human Rights office in Honduras confirmed that in the two months following the elections, at least 23 people were killed during the protest, 22 civilians and one police officer; at least 16 died of gunshot wounds, including women and children, from weapons fired by security forces. More than 1,000 were imprisoned during the protests or for violating a curfew as part of a declared State of Emergency. 

For many Hondurans, the rule of law is inexistent, and the country’s institutions are ethically bankrupt and ineffective. The constitutional crisis around the issue of presidential reelection and the highly irregular handling of the elections are the main triggers of the current crisis, but only reflect deeper structural problems.

According to data from the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, 174,000 Hondurans were victims of forcible displacement from 2004 to 2014 due to violence and criminality. More than 60 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. Violent evictions of rural and indigenous communities have increased since the 2009 coup, as land grabs and struggles against mining concessions and large-scale dams intensify.  

There is much concern that current levels of political tension and social dissatisfaction could lead to greatly heightened violence. The situation is complicated by the presence of a multiplicity of organized crime networks, including drug traffickers and former police officers vetted out of the force, and easily accessible weapons.

Ending TPS for Hondurans living in the U.S., with the threat of mass deportations in this volatile context, is an ill-conceived maneuver that imperils regional security. Sending back thousands of people to a country they barely know, without the means to support themselves, will only leave them vulnerable to exploitation by criminal gangs. This undercuts the very stability that was the justification for the quick U.S. support of Hernández after last year's contested elections.

One bipartisan solution Congress could take up would be to extend permanent residency to eligible TPS holders from Central America.

The administration must not lose sight of the broad goals in Honduras. The U.S. should continue to support Honduras' independent anti-corruption commission, organized under the umbrella of the Organization of American States, as well as support ongoing efforts toward justice reform in Honduras. Most importantly, the Trump administration should stop using Central Americans as pawns for its anti-immigrant agenda, as this is highly destabilizing to the region.

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project.