Commentary
By Katie Ulrich 11-13-2018

The way you start a story is crucial for how it’s understood. While the middle and the end of a story play an important part, it’s the beginning that controls how the story will unfold – it’s the beginning that shaped out view of what is true and right and real.

Many of us were told that the story of Columbus starts in 1492. We could easily start this story hundreds of years earlier, beginning with the native people that inhabited these lands until Columbus showed up, claiming the land as his. Changing where this story starts has incredible implications for how our society understands the story of Columbus and Native Americans.

Beginnings have the power to entirely reframe what we know, and in this case, it allows us to see the image of God in others.

Being here in Honduras amidst the news of the asylum seekers headed towards the United States has made me wonder: what would happen if we approached the story on migration in this same way?

For most people, this specific story starts on Oct. 12, the day the caravan left from San Pedro Sula to start the trek towards the U.S. In the days following their departure, it’s all anyone here in Honduras could talk about. Footage of the asylum seekers flooded every news outlet and dominated countless living room conversations and lunchroom chats. From this side of things, it’s hard not to be confronted with the fact that the daily realities here in Honduras make many people feel like leaving the place they love is their only option.

But Oct. 12 isn’t the starting point of the story. The path that led these asylum seekers to migrate starts much earlier. For some, their stories include years of struggling to be able to put food on the table, a health crisis that has left them economically crippled, or a lack of funds that prevented them from being able to send their kids to school. For others, their stories include constant extortion, threats by local gangs, or fear of the criminals that walk freely in their neighborhood. For many, their stories are characterized by a sense of hopelessness that things will ever get better.

Honduras isn’t an easy place to leave behind, and the choice to do so isn’t something people take lightly. Life here is full of deeply connected communities, rich culture, and immense beauty. But when a lack of opportunities and persistent violence makes it impossible to have a safe existence here, sometimes the only option left is to uproot your life.

So often, the narrative on immigration is fixated on where people who are migrating are headed. But if we want to do this story justice, we must back up to see the threads of poverty and violence running through the story — so much so that it pushes thousands of people to make the impossible decision to leave behind their homes to walk over 1,000 miles with the small hope they might find a better life elsewhere.

This story isn’t about where they’re going — it’s about where they’re coming from.

As one Honduran congressman put it, “They are not seeking the American dream – they’re fleeing the Honduran nightmare.”

Looking at immigration from its roots can entirely change our perspective on the issue. But thinking about immigration in this way isn’t just a new anecdotal perspective — it is smart in terms of policy, too.

U.S. policy on immigration tends to have a domestic focus, trying to use tougher border regulation as a deterrent for Central American migration. But as we’ve seen this year, not even separating children from their parents at the border has stopped people from migrating.

As reported by Insight Crime, most Central Americans know the dangers they’ll likely encounter and their chance of being deported, but “they often choose to migrate anyway, which suggests that they feel the risk of staying in their home country outweighs the risks of attempting the journey.”

Rather than focusing on deterrence at the border, U.S. policies that address the root causes of migration are more effective. A faithful response to immigration includes supporting policies that help create societies where migration isn’t the only option for a better life. U.S. aid to Honduras is already supporting efforts to reduce violence, improve governance, and create economic opportunities, which are the kinds of actions that will have an impact of the number of people migrating.

When we reframe this story to look at where these asylum seekers are coming from, it can completely change how we understand this story. I hope it teaches us to see each migrant’s journey with compassion. I hope it challenges us to act and to work towards creating secure and safe societies. But all of this will have to begin with listening to these stories from where they really start.

Katie Ulrich currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she is part of the Mennonite Central Committee and works as a Research and Communication Fellow at the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ). 

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