OCOTEPEQUE, HONDURAS — Juan Ramon Galdanez can’t seem to get ahead, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Galdanez and Elida, his wife, and their two children live in an agricultural town in Honduras, nestled close to the mountainous borders of El Salvador and Guatemala. Elida sells small items to supplement the family income.

Work as a day laborer is inconsistent for Juan Ramon, who’s been a farmer all his life. He rents land, borrows money for seed and then sells the harvest.

By the time he pays the rent on the land and pays back the money for the seed, there isn’t much left over. But at least it’s something.

“We get our fistfuls,” Elida says, pointing out that the family cooks with some of the beans, corn and onions from the harvest.

Her parents left them their small home — two rooms, one with a kitchen. It’s time to replace the roof, but there’s no money for it.

“It’s hard to break the cycle,” Juan Ramon says. “This year, it didn’t rain.”

Small farmers like Juan Ramon are vulnerable to bad harvests. He says it can take two or three years to recover from one crop. Also, small farmers are competing with bigger companies that can wait to sell their harvest at higher prices.

“It makes it harder for our people to live in an economy of cents,” Juan Ramon says. “Only by the mercy of God do we survive.”

nInternational factors

In 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors attempting to illegally enter the United States spiked. The U.S. Border Patrol reported an increase of nearly 30,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014 — from 20,805 to 51,705.

Minors from Ocotepeque left in search of work. Violence is also a factor. While Honduras’ murder rate has decreased significantly since 2012, the country continues to have one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

Henry Flores, who works in San Salvador with Unbound, a nonprofit organization serving the marginalized, says many of the unaccompanied minors fled violence in El Salvador as well.

San Salvador, a two-hour drive from Ocotepeque, is a haven for Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18. Both of these gangs began in Los Angeles and, as undocumented gang members were deported from the U.S., spread into Mexico and Central America.

“People can’t see a future for themselves,” Flores says, noting in particular the pressure that young people feel to join gangs in San Salvador as well as in San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

When fathers travel north for work, they leave their sons without paternal guidance. Many boys grow up searching for father figures and wind up joining gangs.

Richard Alan Jones, an expert in Latin American migration with Catholic Relief Services, says an improving Mexican economy also contributed to the steep increase in immigration from Central America. With the lowest number of Mexican immigrants since the 1970s, human traffickers have targeted Central Americans.

Smugglers, who charge more than $6,000 for transit to the United States, began stimulating immigration in Central America, even offering two-for-one deals, he said.

The Pew Research Center, analyzing data from the United States and Mexican governments, reported an overall decrease in the number of unaccompanied minors attempting to enter the U.S. illegally this year.  

U.S. officials apprehended 12,509 unaccompanied children at the U.S.- Mexico border from October to April, down from 21,403 over the same time period a year ago. U.S. officials attribute the decrease to a record number of deportations of Central Americans by the Mexican government.

But while fewer may be arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border, thousands are still leaving their home countries. José Mejia headed north last year with friends when he was 17. His father left his mother, Maria, before he was born. She slept on the streets in Ocotepeque while she was still nursing him.

José left because there wasn’t enough work, his mother says. He’s living with an uncle and studying in the United States. His uncle wired him money along the way.

“I felt sad when he told me he was leaving because I knew he was going to risk his life,” his mother says. It took him a month to arrive to the U.S.- Mexico border and he called her twice along the way.

“He suffered a lot on the journey,” Maria says, but wouldn’t go into detail. Instead, she shared a story about one migrant who fell from a train on the journey and came back in a wheelchair.

nChanging the culture

Coffee is the major crop in Ocotepeque. Luis Antonio Sanabria, a principal at a small school in Barrio Calvario, says coffee harvesting makes it hard to keep kids in class.

While the students get a two-month break starting around Christmas, some students don’t return until late March, after all the coffee has been cut. In a class where teachers are juggling three different grade levels, a month is next to impossible to make up.

Yet parents are left with few options and count on the extra money their children make to get by, according to Hector Hernandez, a day laborer who provides for his family harvesting crops.

Standing no taller than 5’2”, he hoists a 130-pound bag of cut coffee cherries above his head. It’s a day’s work and he’ll be paid $6 for it.

Alexander Ramirez boasts that he cuts faster than that, but admits that it’s still just enough for his family to get by. When they’re not cutting coffee, workers clean the fields.

Ramirez and Hernandez have been day laborers all their lives. They receive help from Unbound. Sponsors in the U.S. donated $30 a month to assist children, young adults or seniors. When a family has sponsored children, Unbound requires them to stay in school.

“One of the hardest things to change is the culture of the family,” says Julio Rosa, a social worker with Unbound. He mentions machismo in particular.

Mothers raise children with machismo, he says. “Wait until your father gets home,” they say. Families accustomed to the men making all the decisions have an even harder time when fathers journey north.

To start to address it, Unbound sets up mother’s groups in villages and towns so that women can support each other.

Juan Ramon Galdanez says he’s been tempted to travel to the U.S., but the help his family is receiving from Unbound helps them get by.

“Many dream the American dream, but many die along the way,” he says. “They dream of having a little house to own here. They leave with the intention of coming back.”

To learn more about Unbound, a U.S.-based charity founded by lay Catholics to help the marginalized, visit www.unbound.org.