The first lady and her entourage were waiting. So were politicians, camera crews and aid workers in blue vests, ready to hand out suckers and balloons to toddlers pulled along by their frazzled mothers.
A chartered flight that landed here Monday was the first carrying only mothers and children deported by the U.S. as it tries to stem a wave of migration from Central America that has overwhelmed U.S. border officials. U.S. officials said there would be many more.
While Honduran officials were trying to put the best face on the process, one human rights worker termed the exodus of thousands in search of jobs or safety from rampant violence, and their forced return by the United States, “a great tragedy.”
Critics said Honduran government inaction was largely responsible and that the welcome in San Pedro Sula, a city sometimes called the murder capital of the world, was mostly a show. Despite the government’s promise of job leads, a $500 stipend, psychological counseling and schooling, returning mother Angelica Galvez said she wasn’t expecting much.
“They haven’t helped me before,” said Galvez, 31, who was traveling with her 6-year-old daughter, Abigail. “Why should I believe them now?”
Galvez and her daughter were among the 38 Hondurans on the flight, who had been held at a U.S. detention center in Artesia, N.M. Forty people — 18 mothers, 13 girls and nine boys — had been scheduled to be on the flight, but two fell ill and didn’t travel.
U.S. officials said the flight reflected their determination to stem the tide of migration. The number of women and children arriving in the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has skyrocketed in recent months. More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have sought permission to remain.
U.S. officials have long been sending back adults and some children; Monday’s flight was the first to carry only mothers and children. Many of those who have headed north said that although poverty and violence pushed them to act, they had moved now because they heard that there was a new U.S. policy that made it easier for unaccompanied children or single women with at least one child to remain in the country.
In fact, only unaccompanied minors from countries that don’t border the U.S. are guaranteed a chance to make their case before an immigration judge, according to U.S. law. But when single mothers started appearing with their children, border officials had no place to house them and released many with a “notice to appear” later.
“This is just the initial wave,” said an official with the Department of Homeland Security. “Our border is not open to illegal migration, and we will send recent illegal migrants back.”
Honduran First Lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez, who was at the processing center when the group arrived, has been at the forefront of the crisis, spearheading the new governmental programs she says are aimed at improving the lives of those who are sent back and giving others a reason to stay.
“They are very sad, of course,” she said of the women who arrived back in Honduras on Monday. “But we want to give them opportunities.”
At the processing center about half a mile from the airport, women and children received food, medical screenings and money. Officials kept a close watch on them, cordoning them off and away from the media as they boarded yet another bus for stops at a child welfare office, shelter and terminal.
Galvez, a single mother, said she left Honduras because she couldn’t find a job.
Despite all the attention they received upon their arrival, Galvez said she didn’t even receive enough money at the processing center to get her all the way home to La Ceiba — about a three-hour drive northeast of San Pedro Sula. Instead, she planned to stay the night with a family member in the city.
She and her daughter started their trek north on May 27 after family members told her there was a new U.S. law that gave people like her permission to enter the country. She walked, took a series of buses and paid criminals about $25 dollars to ride with her daughter on top of the infamous northbound freight train known as La Bestia, or the Beast.
She had no intention of sneaking into the U.S., instead giving herself up to Border Patrol officials near McAllen, Texas, she said. She never made it to her brother’s home in Dallas.
“It was a dangerous trip,” she said. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”
But others were still trying. More Central American migrants were crossing the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico on Monday, sheltering at relief centers in southern Mexico or waiting alongside railroad tracks hoping to climb aboard a train and head to the U.S.
La Bestia had stopped running for several days while workers repaired tracks that had been vandalized. It was expected to resume late Monday or Tuesday.
“I want to keep going,” Jessica Sandoval, 30, said as she waited at a refugee shelter in Arriaga, Mexico, with her three daughters, ages 2, 8 and 11. They left La Ceiba, Honduras, 17 days ago and had been at the shelter for nearly a week.
She said her region of Honduras had become a living hell because of gangs, drug traffickers, political violence and a lack of jobs after numerous factories shut down.
Suyapa Hernandez, 33, a single mother who returned to San Pedro Sula on an earlier flight Monday, said the economy and crime led her to journey north. Hernandez said she had been mugged several times in Honduras for her phone or even pocket change.
Hernandez, who returned on a U.S.-chartered flight packed with adults, said she had no alternative but to venture to the U.S.
“The bad economy contributes to the delinquency,” she said. “I’m scared to go out on the streets, even during the day.”
San Pedro Sula is the second-largest city in a country with the highest homicide rate in the world. An assassin can be easily hired for $100 and people don’t answer phone calls from unknown cellphone numbers, fearing they may be extortion demands.
Some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods resemble tropical ghost towns because scores of Hondurans have fled their homes because they’ve had enough of the violence at the hands of two of the country’s most notorious gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.
So far this year in the San Pedro Sula region, there have been 594 homicides, according to the city’s morgue statistics. Last year, there were a total of 778.
Hugo Ramon Maldonado, vice president for the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras, estimates that 80% of the people emigrating from Honduras are fleeing some sort of criminality or violence, such as extortion threats from gangs or drug traffickers.
The government is largely to blame because it rarely goes after criminals, he said.
“Giving them [$500] and sending them on their way? That’s not an alternative. That doesn’t help,” Maldonado said.
“What I believe they are doing now is just making a political show with our returned migrants,” Maldonado said. “What is happening in this country is a great tragedy.”
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Arriaga and Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.