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December 1998, Volume 5, Number 12

Central America: Hurricane Mitch

Hurricane Mitch, which killed 10,000 people in Honduras and Nicaragua in late October 1998, left three million people homeless, and severely damaged both economies, is expected to increase migration to the US. Honduran President Carlos Flores Facusse warned that a new wave of migrants will go "walking, swimming and running up north" unless the United States helps Central America get back on its feet. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo also expressed concern about a massive northward migration of Central Americans that would put strains on Mexico as well as the United States.

Mitch dumped up to 25 inches of rain on Central America and caused losses equivalent to half the GDPs of some countries. Banana production was halted, leaving 17,000 farm workers jobless. The Central American and Caribbean Textiles and Apparel Council has asked the Clinton administration to make it easier for their products to enter the US; apparel is the largest employer in the Mitch-affected area.

According to some reports, up to 10 percent of the residents of some rural villages have already left for the US, and another third are likely to attempt to illegally enter the US. However, immigration officials in both Mexico and the US reported no significant increase in illegal border crossings by Central Americans in November. The INS reported that it has a "contingency plan in effect to control any mass migration" due to disasters such as Mitch.

Because of the hurricane, the Clinton administration suspended deportations to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua until January 7, 1999, at the earliest, in what the INS described as "a humanitarian effort to help the four governments cope with the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch."

On her return to the US from the devastated areas, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "There is a double-edged problem here for those countries, with the immigrants. One is that they cannot accommodate people at this time. They've literally nowhere for people to live or be put. They also would collapse completely, in some cases, without the funds coming in from the people who are working and sending" remittances. The Clinton administration is debating how many people should be given TPS. Advocates estimated that up to 450,000 Central Americans could be included in the largest TPS plans under consideration.

Some of the Central Americans detained by the INS and not deported as planned, protested their confinement. A hunger strike began at the Mira Loma Detention Center on November 19 when 120 detainees refused to eat because their deportation to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala was delayed; they said they wanted to return home to be with relatives. Diplomatic officials from the Central American nations representing the hunger strikers said they were unable to accept the return of detainees because of Hurricane Mitch.

The asylum applications of many Central Americans who arrived in the US in the 1980s were rejected. However, under the ABC settlement in 1991, the INS agreed to reconsider their cases. In 1997, Congress approved the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, which was expected to permit up to 240,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the US since 1990 and permitted to work, to petition individually to remain in the US on the basis that returning home would be an "extreme hardship" for them or their families.

Advocates said that the "extreme hardship" standard would require most applicants to hire attorneys; those wanting to stay in the US often submit thousands of pages of evidence to prove "extreme hardship." Advocates had hoped that, in light of Mitch, the INS might make a blanket determination that all Central Americans would face extreme hardship if they were returned. NACARA permitted Nicaraguans and Cubans in the US by December 1995 to become immigrants, with no requirement that they show hardship.

Some illegal Central Americans and some of those who have applied for asylum would like to return home to help family members. The INS permits asylum applicants to leave the US in an emergency, but immigration officials warn that, if applicants return voluntarily to their native countries, they may have a harder time making the case that they need asylum in the US.

On November 16, Cardinal O'Connor of New York called on the US government to permit illegal Central Americans to make a roundtrip to their homeland during reconstruction, and then return to the US. He also called on the US and other developed nations to forgive the debts of the impacted Central American nations. Honduras and Nicaragua have asked that their combined $10 billion foreign debt be forgiven.

According the Census, there were 1.3 million Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans in the US in 1997. Remittances to Central America are estimated to be $2.5 to $3 billion a year.

The Costa Rican government declared a temporary amnesty on November 22 for illegal migrants from other Central American countries. Costa Rica is suspending deportations of Central American workers for six months if they entered Costa Rica before November 9, a week after Mitch hit. There are an estimated 500,000, mostly unauthorized, Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica.

"Latin American Briefs, Associated Press, November 24, 1998. William Gibson, "Central Americans to stay: U.S. planning to lift threat of deportation," Sun-Sentinel, November 24, 1998. Andrew Blankstein, "Detention Center Locked Down: Hunger Strikers Ill," Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1998. Virginia Breen, "Let Illegal Immigrants Visit Home," New York Daily News, November 16, 1998. William Branigin and Roberto Suro, "U.S. Seeks to Stem a Wave Of Migration After Mitch," Washington Post, November 14, 1998. Mirta Ojito, "After Storm, Immigrants Fear Returning May Strand Them," New York Times, November 12, 1998.