U.S. immigration officials view Harold James Tatum as a Honduran but Tatum views himself as a New Yorker. Tatum was deported to Honduras 18 years ago but he says he’s never really gotten used to it.
“I don’t even know the national anthem of this country,” says Tatum, sitting behind a table selling jewelry near the beach in Tela on Honduras’ Caribbean coast.
“I feel like I’m more American than I am Hondureñan because everything that I do is American, you know.” For instance his boom box is streaming the New York radio station 77 WABC. It’s keeping him up to date on the latest twists in the Stormy Daniels/Donald Trump saga.
Tatum, who’s now 57, left Honduras with his family when he was six. He grew up in New York City and says all his habits are from the U.S.
“The stuff I buy to eat, the movies I watch, the music I listen to — it’s like it’s tattooed in me to be an American,” he says.
But he never got around to applying for American citizenship. In the mid-1990s after serving five years in prison for a drug conviction, Tatum lost his legal residency in the U.S. and was deported to the country of his birth, Honduras.
It was not a happy homecoming. “Well I find it hard because there’s no jobs here,” he says. Over the years Tatum has managed to get some menial work. He worked for a while in the kitchen of a hotel, making $6 a day plus a plate of food. Then he got a job recruiting tourists to go on boat tours of the harbor. But none of those gigs lasted. Now he sells bracelets and necklaces by the beach. This keeps him busy but he says it doesn’t pay enough to live on.
“I’m surviving through my brothers and sisters,” he says of his siblings still back in New York. “They help me out. They send me money every month, pay my rent.”
His brothers and sisters all became U.S. citizens.
The Trump administration last week terminated Temporary Protected Status for nearly 60,000 Hondurans who’ve been living in the U.S. for years and, according to the Center for Migration Studies, have 53,500 U.S.-born children.
TPS was granted to Hondurans in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch ravaged their country.
Now tens of thousands of other Hondurans could soon be following in Tatum’s footsteps. The former TPS recipients could face deportation as early as January 2020.
This could be a major economic blow to the Central American nation.
Honduras is the second poorest country in the Americas. Its per capita income is $5,500 per year; only Haiti’s is lower. The minimum wage is just over $1 an hour. The two largest cities Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula have recently been ranked as two of the most violent places in the world.
The Secretary of Homeland Security in a statement announcing the end of TPS for Hondurans said the crisis — Hurricane Mitch in 1998 — that prompted the U.S. to offer refuge to Hondurans no longer exists and thus their temporary immigration status should also end.
“Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the Secretary determined that the disruption of living conditions in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch that served as the basis for its TPS designation has decreased to a degree that it should no longer be regarded as substantial,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen said in the announcement, “Thus, as required under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated.”
Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California Santa Cruz, who specializes in Latin America and contemporary Honduran politics, says the Honduran economy is in shambles and is no position to take in tens of thousands of deportees.
“There’s no way the economy can absorb them,” she says. “I think there’s almost no work available. I know hard-working, able-bodied people who love to work who haven’t been able to find jobs for ten years. Then those people try to find work in the informal economy selling things on the side and now those people are being extorted by the gangs so they can’t even do that.” She calls the decision to end TPS “cruel.”
Behind his collection of modestly priced jewelry, Tatum says the returnees have a tough road ahead of them.
And there’s another looming economic problem. In 2016 Hondurans in the U.S. sent $3.4 billion back home to family and friends.
“And most of them been away from here for so long that they’re slightly Americanized,” he says. “Coming back here they’re not going to be able to survive like they want to unless while they were there (in the U.S.) they were sending money here and possibly built a little house or something like that but otherwise they’re going to have it hard.”
It’s definitely not like living in New York City.