I spent the end of last week crossing borders. I was leading a tour group that traversed the US/Canada border four times. Each time I stood in front of a Border Protection Officer I had a healthy dose of nervousness. At one checkpoint, the officer asked me if I had ever been denied entry into Canada, when I said no he glanced again at his computer screen and then at my passport and then back at the screen. Evidently I share a birthdate and name with someone who was denied entry for some undisclosed reason. He eventually let me cross. A few others in my group did not get past the agents so easily because they were transporting “weapons” in their luggage. A word of caution: when traveling to Canada, leave the pepper spray at home.
Those tense moments and then relief when I finally cleared US Customs for the last time transported me back to similar emotions during a recent trip south of the US border.
Last December when I traveled to Honduras with my husband for the first time, I joined the over 800,000 Americans who visit the country annually including those who visit the picturesque island of Roatán, the place where my husband was born. When we landed in San Pedro Sula, considered the most violent city in the world, I had a similar feeling of apprehension and tension. Although I was with a native Honduran, there was still a nagging fear and concern. There were checkpoints, an armed guard at our hotel, and unforgettable scenes of poverty including kids playing soccer in front of tin roofed shacks and surrounded by mounds of trash. As we rode the twenty-five miles to his aunt’s home in Puerto Cortes, we witnessed children as young as six years old carrying buckets of sand to the center of the major interstate roads to fill potholes as a few drivers slowed down to hand them a Lempira – Honduras’ incredibly devalued currency – paying them the equivalent of a nickel to do the dangerous work of filling the ever-present pot holes that really should be a function of the government.
I also noticed the ever-present advertisements for American products plastered on billboards in town after town. It was obvious to me that America and Honduras were inextricably linked in what a recent Forbes magazine article calls “economic complementarity.”
The US is Honduras’ chief trading partner. But is it a fair trade? Do we as Americans benefit from the poverty in Honduras? At least our companies do. More than 200 American companies are currently operating in Honduras according the US State Department. And under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994, as a Free Trade Zone 80 percent of US goods enter the region duty-free without tariffs, and the remaining 20 percent will be phased out by 2016.
Critics of NAFTA argue that while the incentives of Free Trade Zones generate badly needed employment opportunities and access to foreign currency, smaller developing countries like Honduras become trapped in low value activities that provide minimal opportunities. And scholars like Yale’s Jennifer Bair have published research that found little evidence that Honduras’ garment industry, its fastest growing export sector, is generating enough growth and sustainable development.
Since October of last year more than 16,000 unaccompanied Honduran children and 30,000 traveling as families have been detained as they attempted to cross the US/Mexico border. Some are fleeing violence associated with street gangs and drug trafficking. Others are fleeing the poverty that has been the one consistent Honduran designation – it has been considered one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere for half a century.
As the Obama administration considers granting refugee status to Honduran children by executive action, we must understand that the Central American refugee crisis is also an American crisis. Our borders connect us just as much as they separate us, both to the north and south. While I know we cannot solve every neighboring country’s economic and security problems, we also cannot pretend that the steady stream of migrants going to great lengths to cross our southern border is not in part a consequence of an economic policy that perpetuates such a depressed economy that 66 percent of Hondurans live in poverty and unimaginable violence.