CHOLOMA, Honduras — His bags were packed, his checklist complete and the smuggler was ready. If all went well, Eswin Josué Fuentes figured he and his 10-year-old daughter would slip into the United States within mere days.
Then, the night that fell before he planned to leave, he had a phone conversation with a Honduran friend living illegally in New York. Under President Donald Trump, the friend warned, the United States was no longer a place for undocumented migrants.
Shaken, Mr. Fuentes abruptly ditched his plans in May and decided to stay here in Honduras, despite its unrelenting violence and poverty. He even passed up the $12,000 in smuggler fees that his sister in the United States had lined up for the journey.
“I got scared of what’s happening there,” Mr. Fuentes said.
While some of President Trump’s most ambitious plans to tighten the border are still a long way off, particularly his campaign pledge to build a massive wall, his hard-line approach to immigration already seems to have led to sharp declines in the flow of migrants from Central America bound for the United States.
From February through May, the number of undocumented immigrants stopped or caught along the southwest border of the United States fell 60 percent from the same period last year, according to United States Customs and Border Protection — evidence that far fewer migrants are heading north, officials on both sides of the border say.
Inside the United States, the Trump administration has cast a broader enforcement net, including reversing Obama-era rules that put a priority on arresting serious criminals and mostly left other undocumented immigrants alone. Arrests of immigrants living illegally in the United States have soared, with the biggest increase coming among those migrants with no criminal records.
The shift has sown a new sense of fear among undocumented immigrants in the United States. In turn, they have sent a warning back to relatives and friends in their homelands: Don’t come.
The message is loud and clear here in Honduras. Manuel de Jesús Ríos Reyes, 55, stood in the unforgiving sun outside a reception center for deportees from the United States. His wife, who tried to cross the American border illegally in March, was on an incoming flight.
Mindful of the warnings from the United States, Mr. Ríos had urged her not to go. “She didn’t pay attention,” he recalled. “Now she’s here. Thank God, she’s alive.”
If his wife talks about trying to cross again, he said, he will redouble his pleas. “Ah, my love,” he planned to tell her. “Stay here.”
Many in the Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — appear to be doing just that. Those nations have accounted for many of the undocumented immigrants who have tried to cross the American border in recent years. Now the wariness about Mr. Trump’s immigration policies is palpable, the impact visible.
Migrant smugglers in Honduras say their business has dried up since Mr. Trump took office. Fewer buses have been leaving the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula bound for the border with Guatemala, the usual route for Honduran migrants heading overland to the United States. In hotels and shelters along the migrant trail, once-occupied beds go empty night after night.
Marcos, a migrant smuggler based near San Pedro Sula, said that last year he had taken one or two groups each month from Honduras to the United States border. Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, however, he has had only one client. He blames Mr. Trump.
“People think he’s going to kick everyone out of the country,” Marcos said, asking that his full name not be published because of the illegal nature of his work. “Almost nobody’s going.”
Instead, many potential migrants in the Northern Triangle are choosing to sit tight and endure the poverty and violence that have driven hundreds of thousands to seek work and sanctuary in the United States in recent years.
Juan Ángel Pérez, 31, an unemployed factory worker in the northern Honduran city of Villanueva, had planned to head overland to the United States in June and had lined up a smuggler for $8,500. But after speaking with his sister, an undocumented immigrant in North Carolina, he decided against it.
“She said, ‘Think about it very carefully because the situation is getting more difficult,’” Mr. Perez recalled last week. “I was scared of losing the money.”
“If I stay here, life is complicated,” he said, “and if I go there, it’s complicated. I’m between the sword and the wall.”
Instead of going to the United States, some are migrating within their own countries in search of opportunity and safety, or they are seeking to move elsewhere in Latin America and even to Europe or Asia.
Around midnight, Roberto, 24, sat on the grimy steps outside the main bus station in San Pedro Sula, waiting for a night bus bound for Guatemala City. His intended destination was Mexico — at least for now. In time, he hoped to press on to the United States, but now was not the moment — “because of the current policies” under Mr. Trump, he said.
“Every day, it’s on the news” here in Honduras, Roberto said, asking that his last name not be used because he planned to sneak into Mexico illegally. “People are being deported every day.
He chuckled uncomfortably at the thought of paying a lot of money to a smuggler to reach the United States, only to be detained and deported once he got there. “Imagine paying and losing everything,” he said.
Experts in the region warn that the decline in migration could put additional pressure on Central American countries, increasing competition for work, which is already in short supply, and potentially driving more people into the criminal gangs that have terrorized the region.
Mr. Trump is also proposing to cut American assistance for the sorts of economic and social development programs that seek to alleviate the poverty and violence that have compelled so many people to flee their homes.
The president’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year would slash economic assistance to Central America by 42 percent from 2016 levels, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group.
“The effect on judicial reform, job creation and violence prevention efforts would be severe,” the organization said.
Since abandoning his plan to migrate with his daughter to the United States, Mr. Fuentes, a widower, has not found work here in the violent northern city of Choloma or in nearby San Pedro Sula.
Every morning he awakes with his daughter, Andrea Belen, at dawn in their one-room cinder block house. He walks Andrea to a friend’s house, where she waits until it is time to go to school, then he heads into the city and spends the day knocking on doors and asking for a job.
As tough as their life is, though, he does not regret canceling the journey to the United States.
“I have to think about my daughter,” he said. “You don’t want to make a mistake.”
Because much of the migration to the United States from the Northern Triangle is illegal and undocumented, its precise volume is hard to pin down.
But the decline in migrants heading north has been registered at many points along the way. The Mexican authorities recorded a 56 percent drop in the number of undocumented immigrants detained in their country — many of them presumably on their way to the United States — in the first four months of the Trump administration, compared with the same period last year.
The drop was stark among Hondurans. Nearly 9,000 were detained in Mexico from February to May, compared with more than 18,600 during the same period last year.
“Fewer Hondurans are being detained because fewer are leaving,” María Andrea Matamoros, vice minister for foreign relations in Honduras, told reporters last month.
That said, the two general populations of migrants — those principally fleeing poverty and those principally fleeing violence — seem to be responding in different ways.
Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and many people fleeing the violence continue to leave Honduras in significant numbers, experts say.
“There isn’t an institution in the country that can protect them,” said Sister Lidia Mara Silva de Souza, national coordinator of the Human Mobility Pastoral in Honduras and a member of the Scalabrinian missionary order.
According to the United Nations, more people from the Northern Triangle filed for asylum through the Department of Homeland Security in the first three months of this year than during the same period last year.
An increasing number of Northern Triangle residents have also filed for asylum in other countries, particularly Mexico, migration experts said. Some who might have sought sanctuary in the United States have gone elsewhere, citing Mr. Trump’s policies.
The stream of Central American migrants like Mr. Fuentes, who are principally fleeing poverty, has dropped significantly, immigrants’ advocates say.
For generations, the migration of people from Central America seeking work elsewhere has served as a safety valve for the region, relieving pressure on the labor market and public services. Now, community leaders in Honduras fear that with fewer people migrating in search of opportunities in the United States, poverty will worsen and criminal gangs will find new recruits.
“People don’t have an opportunity to work in this country,” said Daniel Pacheco, an evangelical pastor in a gang-controlled sector of San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities in the world. “We’re very worried.”
Still, many here do not think the decrease in migration will endure for too long. The hardships of life in Honduras are too many, the government’s solutions are too few — and the allure of the United States is too great.
The dream of going to the United States is “the culture,” she said. “You’re not going to rid Hondurans of that.”
“The smoke of fear will drop, the migration will return,” said Sister Valdete Wilemann, who runs a center at the San Pedro Sula airport where Honduran migrants are processed after being deported from the United States.
(H/T ICE, DHS, NY Times)