SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Her slender wrists still red from the handcuffs, she stepped off the airplane on the 36th day of her journey, back where she began.
The $4,000 Diana Aguilar paid to her smuggler affords her two more chances at crossing illegally into the U.S., but one deportation is enough.
“This is my first time, and it will be my last,” said the 23-year-old. “This was a bad experience.”
The Obama administration has accelerated its deportations of Central American migrants, including of children, to try to discourage people such as Aguilar from entering the United States illegally. Over the past year the number of migrants crossing into Texas, particularly children traveling without their parents, has risen sharply.
In the past two weeks, the U.S. has dispatched two airplane flights to San Pedro Sula of deported migrant women and children — a total of about 100 people. And the number of adult deportations to Honduras — currently at just under 23,000 — has set a pace to surpass last year’s total, according to the Center for Assistance to Migrants, a nonprofit group that assists deportees when they arrive at the airports. Mexico, which can deport Central Americans by bus, has been sending children back in even higher numbers.
“We’ve never had deportations like we’re seeing now, of children,” said Valdette Willeman, the organization’s director. “We’re not prepared here to receive children. This center wasn’t built for that.”
In recent weeks, the attention on the immigration crisis seems to have changed the perception among many would-be travelers about how they will be greeted if they reach America. The rumors that had spread widely earlier this year that Central American women and children would be granted “amnesty” if they reached U.S. soil prompted many families to leave.
“I want to be very clear about something: violence and poverty have existed in our region for a long time. But what created this problem also has a lot to do with the lack of clarity in U.S. immigration policy,” the Honduran first lady, Ana Garcia de Hernandez, said last week.
But the stricter enforcement along the route and comments by Obama administration officials that children would be deported seem to have dispelled that notion. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is flying up to 10 planeloads per week to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and has reduced the time needed to process deportations. The Obama administration is also considering a plan for Hondurans to apply for refugee status in their home country, where gang violence rages.
When deportees land at the airport here, they are given a bag with toiletries, food staples such as flour, sugar, rice, beans and coffee, and a small stipend for bus fare home.
Some of them say the new difficulties involved in reaching the U.S. will not deter them from trying again.
“I think most people will try to go back,” said Jorge Vazquez, a 30-year-old construction worker from Tegucigalpa who was deported from Texas this week. “Because when you have kids, you have to try to help them get ahead. I’m going to wait and save, and as soon as I have enough money, I’m going to go again.”
Others, such as Aguilar, said they can’t stomach another failed attempt. She set off by bus from Honduras last month with a group of 45 other migrants because she couldn’t find work in her hometown. Two of her brothers, who she hasn’t seen for eight years, live in Baltimore, she said, and they helped pay for the smuggler.
At one point, she said, each passenger had to pay about $7 to Mexican police to let the bus pass. The smuggler arranged other payments to drug cartels, such as the Zetas, when they passed through their territory. Twice a day they ate simple meals, such as eggs and tortillas, and along the way slept on the floor in safe-houses they called “bodegas.”
Her group got divided up in Reynosa, the Mexican border town across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, where most of the recent wave of migrants have crossed. After two days trying, Aguilar said she crossed the river by boat and made it to a safe-house in McAllen, but she got stopped by an immigration checkpoint on the way out of town.
Aguilar said she was in U.S. custody for about eight days, moving between various detention centers. At times she was shackled by the wrists, ankles and waist.
“They treat you like you’re an assassin,” she said. “People will always look for a way to go back there, but I’m not going to try again.”
“I think I was lucky, because thank God nothing happened to me. I heard so many stories of people who were found dead along the way, dead children.”
Just one thing she will remember fondly: the flight home.
“It was my first time on an airplane,” she said.