On December 30, 1998, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that 150,000 unauthorized Nicaraguans and Hondurans, as well as nationals from those countries on tourist and other visitor visas who were in the US could apply for Temporary Protected Status, obtain work authorization and remain for at least 18 months. Eligible Nicaraguans and Hondurans must identify themselves to the INS by June 1999 and pay $175 for work permits. The INS also suspended deportations to Guatemala and El Salvador until at least March 8, 1999. INS Commissioner Meissner noted that Central American presidents specifically asked that "remittances continue."
In December 1998, the INS began to release 3,000 of the Central Americans being held prior to their scheduled deportation. To qualify for release, they had to have family or friends who promised to provide food and shelter, and were not entitled to work. Some activists asked the INS to return Central Americans who are not being released and who want to return. In FY97, the INS deported 2,200 Guatemalans and 2,000 Hondurans.
Hurricane Mitch killed over 9,000 people, left 600,000 homeless and destroyed the transportation infrastructure. The presidents of four Central American countries--Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador--met in Washington, D.C. on December 10-11 to discuss reconstruction efforts and requested that the US extend the halt on deportations scheduled to expire in January 1999 for another 18 months. President Clinton promised to visit Central America in February 1999.
The Honduran government and international relief officials fear that in addition to emigration, there may be large-scale internal migration to the cities. About 90 percent of banana production was affected, leaving 17,000 plantation workers jobless. Even though the flood waters have receded, the ground is so saturated that it will remain unsuitable for cultivation for at least another several months. Unemployment in Honduras is believed to be over 50 percent, and residents who had moved to export processing zones, as well as farmers, are beginning to move to Tegucigalpa, where more aid is available.
The Dallas Morning News reported that about 10 percent of the 600 residents of Guanacastales, Honduras have left for the United States and that more plan to leave. The wages of many of those who still have jobs have been cut. The wages at one sugar operation, for example, were cut from $30 to $15 a week. Costa Rica, with the strongest economy in Central America, reported in mid-November that 200 migrants a day were crossing into the country from Nicaragua.
The four Central America countries hit hardest by Mitch have a migration agreement allowing any of their citizens a 90-day stay in any of the four countries. There has been increased migration into Guatemala from Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, with many Central Americans headed north to Mexico and the US. Mexico apprehends and returns about 1,000 Central Americans a week; most are believed to be en route to the US. The INS drew up a contingency plan, the Enhanced Border Control Operational Program, to open 10 centers which can house up to 5,000 people each in the event there is a mass immigration.
The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), J. Brian Atwood, said there was evidence that especially young people are emigrating, and warned: "We can't be successful in reconstructing these countries if people don't stay there to do the work." The US government committed $283 million in assistance. President Clinton announced that the US will relieve Honduras and Nicaragua from debt service obligations until 2001 and will try to make it easier for Central American exports to enter the US.
Central Americans in the US are sending record remittances to family and friends at home. At La Curacao, a megastore in Los Angeles, US residents can purchase and pay for items that can be picked up by friends and relatives in La Curacao stores (a non-related chain) in Central America.
NACARA. Regulations drafted by the INS to implement the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act require Salvadorans, Guatemalans and some Eastern Europeans to individually prove that their removal from the US would cause "extreme hardship" to the applicant or to US family members. Many advocates hoped that they would be covered by a general presumption by the INS that they would face extreme hardship because of the length of time that many have been in the US, often more than 10 years, and the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch.
Paul de la Garza, "Devastated Honduras still waits," Chicago Tribune, December 27, 1998. "Remarks by President Bill Clinton and Honduran President Carlos Flores, " Federal News Service, December 11, 1998. Dane Schiller, "INS plans centers for disaster refugees," San Antonio Express-News, December 4, 1998. Tod Robberson, "Flood-ravaged Central Americans headed for US," Dallas Morning News, November 29, 1998.