TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — While attention is focused on the U.S. battle to stem the tide of illegal immigrants from Mexico, a federal effort to crack down on Hondurans is threatening the Honduran economy and sparking a crisis in U.S.-Honduran relations.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya visited Washington on Monday to lobby Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a moratorium on what he called “massive and selective” deportations of Hondurans in the U.S. illegally. He promised that the Honduran government would strenuously defend the rights of Honduran immigrants, without elaborating.
Deportations of Hondurans are expected to reach 40,000 this year if the current pace holds, a sharp increase since 2005, when fewer than 19,000 were deported.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency estimates that 70 percent of the roughly 1 million Hondurans in the United States are here illegally, making them the second-largest illegal population behind Mexicans. Federal statistics indicate that a Honduran national tries to slip into the country illegally about every 15 minutes.
Big blow to Honduran economy
Hondurans have become a significant part of the U.S. workforce, taking low-paying manual labor jobs that many Americans find unattractive. About 20 percent of Honduran immigrants live below the poverty line, according to census figures, but that is an improvement over their lives in Honduras, where half the population earns less than $3 a day.
Once here, they send most of their income back home to support their families, money that is vital to the Honduran economy.
The Honduran Foreign Ministry says legal and illegal immigrants in the United States are expected to send a record $2.8 billion this year — more than a quarter of Honduras’ gross domestic product.
More deportations means less money flows in from the United States, a blow officials in Honduras and other Central American countries say their economies are not equipped to absorb.
“Remittances are like an addiction,” said Juan Jose Garcia, a remittances consultant in San Salvador, El Salvador. “Remittances feed consumption, the banking system and the stability of society.”
In Honduras, “the situation is dramatic,” said Ramon Valladares, director of consular affairs for the Honduran Foreign Ministry. “We hope the number of deportations is not sustained, because America is sending at least 200 of our people home every day.”
Impact on U.S. workforce
But Zelaya also hoped to convince Rice that kicking out thousands of illegal Honduran immigrants would be bad for the U.S. economy, as well.
His argument is in line with a report issued this week in Tegucigalpa by the Central American Council of Human Rights Ombudsmen, which criticized he "illogic" of U.S. policies that target for expulsion the immigrants it needs to sustain its workforce.
Hondurans are a major part of the U.S. labor pool in vital industries like agriculture, construction, food service and transportation, and cracking down even harder could lead to labor shortages in cities where Hondurans are most prominent, activists said.
Some cities would be especially hard-hit, statistics suggest. Research by the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at the University of California-Los Angeles found that Honduran immigrants, as many as 80 percent of them in the country illegally, make up nearly 3 percent of the day labor pool in Los Angeles.
Honduran workers are also an important part of the labor pool in Washington, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston and Omaha, Neb.
But signs are not promising that Zelaya will get his way. Thursday, three days after he made his plea, U.S. authorities flew two planeloads of illegal Honduran immigrants, more than 100 in all, back to Tegucigalpa.
Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com contributed to this report.