Hopes and Dreams in Honduras

This week, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) staff met with one of our newest partners in Honduras at our office in Cambridge. Ely Castro Rosales, a member of the Jesuit-led radio station Radio Progreso, gave an unforgettable firsthand account of the unfolding human rights crisis in Honduras and the complicity of the U.S. government.

As my colleagues Gina Collignon, Leigh Meunier, and I prepare to join Radio Progreso in Honduras this Saturday, as part of an international accompaniment delegation organized by the SHARE Foundation, Castro Rosales’ story is an inspiring example of courage in the face of repression.

As a journalist and human rights defender, Castro Rosales has been involved in justice struggles in Honduras since the 1980s. He currently serves as a regional coordinator for an activist coalition, which is mobilizing against the constitutionally suspect second term of the ruling government in Honduras. As he told us on Tuesday, he became a “social fighter” at age 13 and remained one ever since.

During a U.S. speaking tour to raise awareness of the growing human rights crisis in Honduras, UUSC partner Ely Castro Rosales shares the stories of lives lost due to the violence and corruption, and a message of hope that the international community will take action.

Radio Progreso, where Castro Rosales is on the news team, is one of the few voices in the media in Honduras who offer critical and independent reporting on human rights issues. They work closely with UUSC’s other partner in Honduras, Foro de Mujeres Por la Vida, who air a program each week on Radio Progreso, and who will also be meeting with the accompaniment delegation next week.

During his presentation Castro Rosales spoke about the threats facing democracy in Honduras, including the violence Honduran police and military forces have committed against peaceful protestors. UU College of Social Justice Director Rev. Kathleen McTigue witnessed some of this suppression first-hand during her solidarity visit to Honduras in January.

Since that time, threats to political and civil rights in Honduras have continued. As UN Special Rapporteur Michel Frost recently concluded, after a visit to Honduras from April 29 to May 12, human rights defenders and journalists—like our partners—remain especially at risk of being criminalized and attacked.

Castro Rosales’ presentation left no doubt that this violence is driven in part by the role of the United States and its allies in the region. It has been previously reported that the United States has funded and trained police units implicated in the recent human rights violations. Castro Rosales showed us photos of tear-gas canisters deployed against Honduran protesters that were manufactured in Pennsylvania.

According to Castro Rosales, Honduran police and military also receive support from the government of Colombia. This often originates from the United States as well, as the country has long sponsored efforts by the Colombian government to train security forces in Central America – despite the Colombian military’s own documented role in human rights violations against its people. The U.S. government is making it harder for people to stay in Honduras, even as it moves to deter them from seeking asylum elsewhere and to deport more Hondurans to danger.

These policies, and the violence they stoke, force more people to flee Honduras in search of safety. Mexican authorities reported a 78% increase in the number of Hondurans traveling through Mexico in February 2018, compared to just before the November 2017 election, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.

As Castro Rosales led us to reflect on our government’s culpability, however, he also made it clear that it is possible to reverse these policies. The United States can end its military and security aid to Honduras. And Congress can protect Honduran immigrants—including 86,000 Temporary Protected Status holders—from mass deportation to unsafe conditions.

What I will try to carry with me most from our talk with Castro Rosales, especially as we travel to Honduras this week, was his quiet bravery. “We are full of hopes and dreams,” he told us at the close of his presentation. “We are in this because we believe it is possible to get better conditions for all our people.”

His words invite my colleagues and me to join the delegation to Honduras not with fear, but with faith. As Radio Progreso begins its editorial segment, “Our Word” each week: Porque creemos en la necesidad de la transformación de la realidad (Because we believe it is necessary to transform reality). At UUSC, we too believe that it is necessary – and possible – to remake our shared world for the better.

Honduras TPS Cancellation Endangers Thousands of U.S. Residents

May 8, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect the total number of Honduran TPS holders as reported by the Congressional Research Service in January 2018.

The Trump administration announced plans today to terminate the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for Honduras, exposing over 86,000 Honduran nationals living in the United States to possible deportation from a country that has been their home for almost two decades. This decision reveals the depths to which this administration will stoop in its effort to strip immigrants of lawful status – and underlines once again the importance of enacting a permanent legislative solution for TPS holders.

Honduras was first designated for TPS in 1999, due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch. Since that time, Honduran TPS holders have started homes, businesses, and families in the United States, contributing to our shared communities over nearly twenty years. As many as 53,500 U.S. citizens are the children of Honduran TPS holders.

This latest TPS cancellation comes in the midst of a political crisis in Honduras that has left at least 16 people dead and directly threatened the safety of UUSC’s partners, as well as other human rights defenders. The recent violence has swelled the numbers of refugees fleeing the region, many of whom joined the caravan of asylum seekers whom the administration stranded at the San Ysidro border crossing between Mexico and the United States earlier this week.

With political conditions and public safety deteriorating rapidly in Honduras, the administration’s move to deport even more people to the country at this time shows a particular disdain for fundamental human rights.

As with the administration’s prior TPS terminations, this decision was heavily politicized. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen disregarded the substantial evidence of conditions in Honduras that warrant the extension of TPS. DHS has disregarded similar evidence of ongoing violence and instability in its moves to end TPS for other nations, including its own internal staff assessment of country conditions in Haiti.

Other evidence confirms that this decision had little to do with the original purpose of the TPS program – a non-partisan humanitarian initiative that has been renewed by both Republican and Democratic administrations. According to The Washington Post, White House officials intervened in the DHS decision when Honduras first came up for TPS renewal, reportedly trying to pressure Nielsen’s predecessor, acting secretary Elaine Duke, to end the TPS designation in November.

Congress should act now to pass the SECURE Act (S. 2144) and the related Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (S. 2275) in the Senate and the American Promise Act (H.R. 4253) in the House, in order to provide a pathway to permanent residency for long-term TPS holders, as well as former recipients of Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) – a similar protected status. These legislative solutions are increasingly the only plausible check on the administration’s reckless indifference to the human suffering its policies will cause.

The Cost of Dissent in Honduras

I’ve just returned from a week-long emergency delegation to Honduras, urgently requested from religious leaders and human right activists who have been protesting since the fraudulent November 2017 elections. During our time we were asked to accompany the people still brave enough to turn out for demonstrations in the face of unremitting state violence.

One of the most chilling things I saw was the scores of troops, armed and in uniform, lining the streets in wait of the protests. They often covered their faces with balaclavas, and wore little or no identifying information and insignia on their uniforms. It’s not accidental that their appearance is evocative of death squads.

Troops line the march route.

We were repeatedly told, throughout our time in Honduras, that the only reason beatings, arrests, and even live ammunition had not been used against the demonstrations we witnessed was because of our presence and the assurance that international attention would prove too costly to the government. Elsewhere in the country at the same moment, demonstrators were indeed met with violence, adding to the over 30 individuals already killed by security forces in the past two months.

The delegation marches with community members on day two of the trip.

As evening approached on a day that had begun with prayer and vigils and ended with tear gas, I got a ride back to the retreat center with Bartolo Fuentes and his wife, Dunia Montoya. Both are journalists and human rights observers active with Radio Progreso (website is in Spanish), one of the few remaining sources of independent reporting in Honduras. Fuentes has also just finished a four-year term as a deputy in the National Congress. His outspoken activism has earned him an ominous status, and he regularly receives death threats.

The cost of dissent is very high in a country like Honduras. However, people like Fuentes and Montoya continue their activism and dissent anyway, with exceptional courage, and are not deterred from speaking truth to power.

A few miles from their home, they received a panicked phone call from their 16-year-old son, telling them that police had broken into their home and were beating up a family member. Fuentes careened us out of the line of traffic we’d been in, detouring down a series of rough side roads, the truck bouncing and sliding along ruts as he raced for their home. As we arrived, the headlights illuminated four uniformed police kicking a young man in the road, who turned out to be Montoya’s brother. The police roared off on their motorcycles when we pulled up, Montoya’s mother screaming after them, “¡Asesinos! ¡Cobardes!” (Murderers! Cowards!), shaking with fear and rage. She flung herself on her son to keep him from being dragged off or more brutally hurt.

This violence is state-sponsored terror, and while Montoya’s brother was the victim this time, the message was ultimately for Fuentes: We’re warning you: you’re next.

The cost of dissent is very high in a country like Honduras. However, people like Fuentes and Montoya continue their activism and dissent anyway, with exceptional courage, and are not deterred from speaking truth to power.

A child lights a candle during an evening vigil.

Those of us in solidarity with them, who believe in human rights and dignity, need to amplify their voices and to speak our own truth to power as well. The United States has played a critical role in supporting Honduras’ ability to terrorize its people. The Washington Post reports that the “government gets millions of dollars in U.S. aid each year, and its elite police units have received training from the U.S. military.” This support only fuels violence the government is perpetrating against bystanders like Montoya’s brother and other Hondurans who are engaged in peaceful dissent. It’s time for us to use U.S. leverage for good and act now.

TAKE ACTION

Follow the instructions below to contact your Members of Congress and support the people of Honduras today.

  1. Call (202) 224-3121. This number will direct you to the Capitol switchboard.
  2. Ask to be connected to your senator or representative. The operator will direct your call to their office. Note that you will need to make three calls to reach all your legislators. Not sure who your senators or representatives are? Look them up here.
  3. A legislative assistant or answering machine will answer the phone. Give them this message, filling in your details:

“Hello, my name is ____ ____. I’m a constituent of [State and zip code]. I’m calling to express my deep concern about the violence and repression in Honduras and the U.S. support of its government and military. I urge Senator/Representative [last name of member] to support all efforts to suspend U.S. police and military aid to Honduras immediately, and ensure that any future aid meets human rights conditions under U.S. law. I also urge you to support credible, independent investigations into electoral fraud and violence during and since the November 26, 2017 Honduran elections. Thank you.

  1. Call again to connect with your other legislators, repeating steps 1-3.
  2. Invite your friends, family, and colleagues to join you in this action!

Answering the Call for Solidarity and Action in Honduras

In early January I received an email that began with these words:

We are writing you on behalf of Padre Melo, the Jesuit priest who has accompanied the Honduran people for more than 20 years. He is appealing to the international community for an emergency delegation: “We need you to organize people who will accompany us, witness what is happening here, and share it with the world”.

The Honduras presidential election last November has widely been condemned as fraudulent. Since then, people throughout the country have poured into the streets in peaceful protests that the state has often responded to with lethal violence.

The hope of sending an international delegation to Honduras is that our presence will shine a spotlight on the struggle and amplify the voices of those who are being ignored and silenced. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has long been a champion of Honduran human rights groups, supporting our grassroots partners financially and working to lift up the stories and urgency behind their struggles. This brief journey of accompaniment is another way for our organization to show the Honduran people that they are not alone.

I decided almost immediately that I would answer Padre Melo’s call and join the emergency delegation, which departs Wednesday, January 24. While I have never been there before, I have heard of Padre Melo and the courageous work he and many other Hondurans are engaged in to advance fundamental human rights. I also know about the decades of financial and military support our own country has sent to the Honduran government, despite their many human rights violations. And, I believe that under the Trump administration, the thousands of people who try to flee the violence in Honduras are even less likely than before to find asylum here in the United States.

My desire to join the delegation is fueled by multiple interests. I’m driven by my commitment to human rights, as well as my sense of moral compromise as a U.S. citizen—knowing my own country has helped create the violence from which it refuses to shelter those who flee. But I am also compelled by my faith: by the core values of Unitarian Universalism that remind me, we are never really separate from one another. Our interdependent web links us to struggles for human rights and dignity, wherever they occur, and pulls us compellingly, relentlessly, to act as we are able to mitigate harm.

I believe in the power of prayer as a way to ground ourselves and to center our awareness on those who live daily in harm’s way. So, I ask you to pray for the people of Honduras, holding them in mind and heart, and also to act on your prayers and concern by speaking out for the rights of those most at risk.

I will have more to tell you on my return January 30, but for now, I hope you will join me on this journey in spirit, by learning more about what is happening and answering the call to support this critical human rights struggle yourself.

Take Action

Follow the instructions below to contact your Members of Congress and support the people of Honduras today.

  1. Call (202) 224-3121. This number will direct you to the Capitol switchboard.
  2. Ask to be connected to your senator or representative. The operator will direct your call to their office. Note that you will need to make three calls to reach all your legislators. Not sure who your senators or representatives are? Look them up here.
  3. A legislative assistant or answering machine will answer the phone. Give them this message, filling in your details:

“Hello, my name is ____ ____. I’m a constituent of [State and zip code]. I don’t need a response. I am calling to urge Senator/Representative [last name of member] to support credible, independent investigations into any and all claims of state-involvement in electoral fraud and violence during and since the November 26, 2017 elections. I also urge you to support all efforts to suspend U.S. police and military aid to Honduras immediately and ensure that any future aid meets human rights conditions under U.S. law. Thank you.

  1. Call again to connect with your other legislators, repeating steps 1-3.
  2. Invite your friends, family, and colleagues to join you in this action!

Thank you! 

Learn More

Read more about Kathleen’s experience in Honduras here.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. Rights Reading will be going on hiatus for a spell but expect to see it back as soon as possible!

1.Why Your Water Could Be Worse Than Flint’s,” by Laura Orlando, In These Times

“Since Flint, there’s been a new spotlight on lead in drinking water. But children in minority neighborhoods have been exposed to lead from water and other sources, like peeling lead paint, for a long time. The Centers for Disease Control consistently reports that black children have the highest risk of lead poisoning in the United States, sometimes two or three times more likely than white children to have elevated lead levels in their blood.”

An in-depth look at the particulars of the Flint water crisis — and the ways that the same problems show up throughout the country — with special attention to how race plays into it. UUSC’s Patricia Jones has found that 53% of African American Michiganders are living in cities that have violated the human rights to water and sanitation under Snyder Administration “emergency management” austerity measures, as opposed to 3% of white Michiganders.

This In These Times analysis also addresses the looming specter of water privatization: “Private companies come and go. They also are not compelled to provide services to those who cannot pay.” Remember: the human right to water means that all people have a right to accessible, safe, sufficient, and affordable water for daily human needs. This article zeroes in on the safety piece but also touches on the affordability piece. Expect a lot from UUSC over the coming months about that — we’re working on a big report about water affordability! Stay up to date on UUSC’s work to advance the human right to water.

2. “Locked Up for Seeking Asylum,” by Elizabeth Rubin, New York Times

“For one thing, it says that the system is stacked against the asylum seeker. The immigration judge works for the Department of Justice, and the government’s attorney works for the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the asylum seeker generally has no right to a public defender. Legal representation is crucial: One study found that mothers with children without a lawyer were granted asylum 2 percent of the time while those with a lawyer won 32 percent of the time.”

This opinion piece in the New York Times SundayReview section highlights a whole host of problems with the current asylum process in the United States, including lengthy periods in detention, shocking rejections, obstacles in obtaining legal resources, and more. As Rachel Freed, UUSC’s vice president and chief program officer, has said, “For those who do risk seeking asylum at borders, it still is the responsibility of the U.S. to ensure that international legal protection and screening standards are met by allowing children and families full, unobstructed access to legal counsel, minimal detention time with responsible, non-abusive treatment while there, and swift release to those who qualify for asylum claims.” As UUSC research has shown, the conditions that asylum seekers experience in immigration detention can further traumatize people who have already been traumatized by the violence and persecution they fled in their home countries. The system needs to change. We have a few ideas. And a way for you to take action to protect children seeking asylum!

3. Closed Doors: Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children, by Human Rights Watch

“By law, Mexico offers protection to refugees as well as to others who would face risks to their lives or safety if returned to their countries of origin. Mexican government data suggest, however, that less than 1 percent of children who are apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities are recognized as refugees or receive other formal protection in Mexico.”

This report from Human Rights Watch illustrates in detail how it’s not just the United States failing people seeking asylum — Mexico is, too, and especially children. With tens of thousands of children traveling to and through Mexico every year from the violence of the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), this report further underscores the need for more adequate support for these kids who are fleeing for their lives in hopes of finding safety and brighter futures.

Rights Reading

Experiences of a Refugee

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “Why Is It So Difficult for Syrian Refugees to Get Into the U.S.?” by Eliza Griswold, New York Times Magazine

“The al-Haj Alis are five of the 2,647 Syrian refugees who have been resettled in the United States, roughly 0.06 percent of the more than 4.5 million driven from the country since the uprising began in 2011. . . . ‘It’s extremely difficult to get into the United States as a refugee — the odds of winning the Powerball are probably better,’ says David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee.”

Collecting biometric data, undergoing intensive screening interviews, repaying loans for air travel, and more — an in-depth exploration, through the experiences of the al-Haj Ali family, of the hurdles that Syrians face in seeking safe haven in the United States. The difficulties the al-Haj Alis faced (and still face, with one son and his family stuck in Jordan) in making their way to safety in the United States are some of the reasons we’ve urged President Obama to accept more Syrian refugees in particular (and more refugees in general); worked against legislation like the “SAFE” Act, which would essentially ban Syrian and other Muslim refugees from the United States; and supported refugees on the ground throughout Europe.
2. “The paradox at the heart of Obama’s Central American refugee policy,” by Dara Lind, Vox

“At the same time that the US is promising to bring people out of Central America to the US, it’s fighting very hard to send some Central Americans back. To advocates, immigration judges, and Central American diplomats, it’s a dangerous paradox. There appear to be serious concerns that the same people the US wants to save from danger in Central America are the ones it’s deporting.”

A great Vox explainer of a disturbing phenomenon in U.S. immigration. While we welcome news of the new U.S.-U.N. program to process asylum seekers in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, we too see the paradox of deporting people back to those same countries. As Rachel Gore Freed, UUSC’s vice president and chief program officer says, “”Expanding the U.S. refugee resettlement program is plainly a step in the right direction in terms of recognizing the Central American humanitarian crisis. But the provision must not be used as a pretext for criminalizing those who may continue to seek asylum at our border.”

3. “Another Kind of Girl,” by Khaldiya, New York Times Op-Docs

In this mini-documentary, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee presents her life in a refugee camp. Survivors of crises throughout the world deserve every opportunity to tell their own stories — and it’s essential that we listen. This act of listening to what communities want and need is foundational to our approach in advancing human rights.