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Honduras, Nicaragua Deportations Delayed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an effort to relieve the crushing economic burden on countries racked by Hurricane Mitch, the U.S. government announced Wednesday that it would allow about 150,000 Hondurans and Nicaraguans to remain and work in the United States while their homelands recover.

The ruling is expected to grant a reprieve to 40,000 Southern California residents who are here illegally or with temporary visas.

Under the new rule, Nicaraguans and Hondurans living in the United States as of Wednesday will be eligible to stay in the country and work legally for 18 months regardless of their immigration status, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner announced. Illegal immigrants in detention who have not been convicted of a crime will be released.

“Given the extent of the damage cause by Mitch, we believe the road to recovery will be long and arduous,” Meissner said at a news conference in Washington. “This will afford time for the recovery effort in Honduras and Nicaragua to take hold. . . . What we are doing here is creating some breathing room.”

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Immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala will not be eligible for the 18-month reprieve but will be allowed to stay in the United States until March 8. Federal officials decided that those two countries were not damaged as badly by the storm as were Nicaragua and Honduras.

In November, the government temporarily suspended deportations involving all four countries. But that suspension was due to expire next week.

The news elated many area Hondurans.

At the Antojitos Bibi restaurant across from MacArthur Park, owner Mario Ponce declared the decision “a magnificent gesture for a desperate country.”

“This is very important,” Ponce said. His hometown along the Rio Grande near the border between Honduras and Nicaragua was essentially swept away by the storm. Four hundred houses were lost. His family lives in a tent dropped off with other relief aid items by a Mexican airline. He said he sends money home to them every week.

The hundreds of millions of dollars sent back to Central America by immigrants here is a key part of the homeland economy. U.S. officials said they hope such payments will help those in storm-ravaged areas who have no work and are surviving on aid from abroad.

Mitch left 9,800 people dead and millions homeless when it slammed into Central America in October. Called the most destructive storm in the Western Hemisphere in 200 years, it also destroyed already scant infrastructure, cut off transportation, ruined crops, overwhelmed sanitation systems and caused widespread hunger and disease.

The new ruling drew fire from some critics of immigration. The Federation for American Immigration Reform issued a statement objecting that temporary stays are often precursors to permanent residency.

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“The temporary protection is a sham,” the statement said. “The [protection] granted to Central Americans in 1990 as a result of civil wars in that region eventually resulted in an amnesty for a half million illegal aliens.”

But U.S. officials insist that the reprieve is not a step to permanent residency. “Now, they can come out of the woodwork,” Paul Pierre Jr., an assistant director for the adjudications department of the INS, said at a news conference in Los Angeles. “And hopefully, the country will be in a good economic recovery in 18 months and they’ll want to go back home.”

Pierre said about 95% of the death and displacement caused by the storm occurred in Nicaragua and Honduras. Honduran officials said the storm set their development efforts back 30 years.

The Justice Department is allowed to grant so-called temporary protection status without approval from Congress. Other countries whose residents have that status are Bosnia, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and the Kosovo province of Serbia--all of which have been scenes of recent warfare--and the island of Montserrat, devastated by a volcano.

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The attorney general may provide the status for citizens of an area that is “experiencing ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster” or other extraordinary conditions, according to federal regulations.

Those Honduran and Nicaraguan immigrants eligible for the reprieve must apply within six months. INS officials said the application, which includes fingerprinting, will cost $175. They said they did not know how many immigrants would apply, or whether some might be deterred by having to register their home addresses.

Vivian Panting, the Honduran consul general in Los Angeles, said the consulate and various immigrant rights groups have been fighting for the reprieve since November. She said most Hondurans have so eagerly awaited the attorney general’s decision that they won’t be concerned about later contact with the INS.

Isabel Cordon, 31, said she thought some people would be nervous about applying, but that the reprieve would allow many immigrants to search freely for better employment.

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“They won’t be scared about la migra all the time,” said Cordon, a Honduran American. “They’ll be able to work for better companies for better pay. Places that don’t abuse the workers.”

Cordon recently flew to her hometown of San Pedro Sula to bring food, clothes and medicine to her family and friends. She couldn’t believe the devastation: families crammed in sprawling cardboard shanties, contaminated food and water, streets flooded and fields swamped. Her family had survived but joined the millions of others battling bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, hunger and thirst.

Justino Vasquez, another Honduran who is in the United States on a tourist visa, said he is very thankful that he can stay and work. His town in the highlands survived the flooding but was left reeling by the crippled economy and road systems. The 45-year-old truck driver said the United States, with its relative wealth and proximity, is the only hope for a battered country that is one of the poorest in this hemisphere.

“A lot of time it seems like Honduras is invisible here,” he said. “There are no wars like in other countries. But now there is a war of hunger.”

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Applications for temporary protected status are available from the toll-free INS forms line, (800) 870-3676, and from the INS World Wide Web site at: https://www.ins.usdoj.gov


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