Honduras occupies 43,100 square miles in Central America. Guatemala lies to the west, El Salvador to the southwest and Nicaragua to the southeast, and the Caribbean Sea to the north. In 2002, the population was estimated at 6,406,052. The people are ethnically divided among mestizos (87 percent); Amerindians (5.5 percent); and blacks and black Caribs, known as Garifuna (4.3 percent); about 97 percent are Roman Catholic. The Garifuna, who developed from the mixture of native Caribs and escaped slaves on the island of St. Vincent, were exiled to Honduras following a revolt against the British in 1797 and gradually spread to other coastal territories of Central America. After immigration, they tended to identify more closely with the Garifuna from other Caribbean countries than with mestizo Hondurans.
Maya civilization flourished in Honduras in the first millennium A.D. but declined long before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502. After three centuries of Spanish control, Honduras gained its independence in 1821 and withdrew from the Federation of Central America in 1838. A few Honduran exiles had come to the United States prior to independence but formed no permanent community. For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Honduran immigration was closely tied to the monopoly of banana growing and transportation granted by the government to the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company in the 1880s. During and after World War II (1939–45), Hondurans were hired as merchant marines, housekeepers, and other household service providers, giving them entrance to the United States. Many married Americans and eventually brought their families from Honduras. General Oswaldo López Arellano, president for most of the period 1963–75 by virtue of one election and two coups, was ousted by the army in 1975 over charges of pervasive bribery by the American United Brands Company. An elected civilian government took power in 1982, initiating an economic modernization program that left many poor Hondurans without work. At the same time, growing political unrest in Nicaragua and El Salvador led to internal instability. After border violations by Nicaraguan troops in 1988, the United States sent 3,200 U.S. troops to Honduras and continued to work closely with the Honduran military into the first decade of the 21st century. Already one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere—in the 1990s, two-thirds of Hondurans were living in poverty— in 1998, Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 9,000, destroyed 160,000 homes, and left 2 million homeless. With few prospects for improvement, Hondurans began to make the dangerous journey through Guatemala and Mexico into the United States. Several thousand continued on to Canada. In response to Hurricane Mitch, U.S. president Bill Clinton granted Temporary Protected Status for 105,000 Hondurans, enabling them to work legally in the United States for at least 18 months. Most disappeared into the illegal community, where they were joined by thousands of others. Legal immigration to the United States averaged just over 6,000 annually between 1992 and 2002. The unauthorized Honduran population, however, was estimated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to be 138,000 in 2000.
Canada’s Honduran community is small, ill defined, and since the late 1990s, closely linked to the drug trade. Of the 4,340 Hondurans in Canada in 2001, only about 400 came before 1981. During the 1980s, the poor began migrating in large numbers, abandoning once-rich mining districts for the promise of economic opportunity and, frequently, government benefits. Though the 3,200-mile journey was dangerous, hundreds took the risk each year. A visa was not required to enter Canada, and unlike the United States, application for asylum could be done inside the country. While refugee cases were pending, Hondurans were granted legal work papers and became eligible for more than $500 per month in provincial benefits—about three times the assistance they could receive in the United States—and could obtain driver’s licenses, enroll their children in school, and visit community health centers at no charge. Beginning in the 1990s, Honduran drug dealers dramatically expanded the small crack-cocaine market in Vancouver, hiring hundreds of boys and young men to act as drug runners under cover of asylum. Whereas the number of dropped refugee claims was low through the mid- 1990s—a little more than one-third—by 1999, the figure had jumped to 65 percent, suggesting that refugee claims were simply the means of entering the Canadian economy. Other Hondurans worked in the underground construction industry in Toronto.