While Congress has struggled rancorously this month over what to do with the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, the Bush administration has kept renewing permission for 312,000 Central Americans—including tens of thousands of people in the District, Maryland and Virginia—to remain here under “temporary protected status.”
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would extend the amnesty yet again, setting various deadlines this summer for qualified immigrants from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador to register. The original rationale for the protection—the natural disasters of a decade ago—has long since passed, but officials said conditions in the countries had not improved enough that the United States could end the amnesty.
Diplomats from the region said last week that although collapsed bridges have been rebuilt and flattened crops replanted, the economies of the countries are still suffering and the largely impoverished populations remain heavily reliant on money sent from relatives working in the United States.
The worst nightmare of Central America’s governments would be to have that cash flow from the north—amounting to about $10 billion a year—cut off and replaced by a tide of returning, jobless families.
“Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, and even though so much time has passed, we are still feeling the effects,” said Roberto Flores Bermudez, the Honduran ambassador to the United States. “We are doing well in terms of macroeconomic indicators, but 60 percent of the people live below the poverty level, and we do not have the social conditions that would permit 78,000 people to come back.”
Many other pockets of Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil, are just as poor, but close economic and political partnerships with the United States give Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador extra clout in Washington. El Salvador contributed troops to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and El Salvador and Honduras strongly endorsed a U.S.-backed Central American trade agreement.
Large numbers of Central Americans here have already benefited from a series of amnesties. Since the 1980s, when civil conflicts erupted in their homelands and the United States became involved in battling leftist movements there, more than half a million refugees in the United States illegally have been granted protection from deportation.
With prospects for sweeping immigration change now uncertain, immigrant advocates say families with temporary protected status should be allowed to become permanent U.S. residents because for years, they have put down roots and followed stringent rules, paid processing fees and undergone background checks.
At a recent rally on the Capitol lawn supporting immigration reform, several workmen from El Salvador and Honduras said that they were grateful to be living here under temporary protected status but that it was hard to be away from their families for so many years. Under the rules, no foreign travel is allowed unless there is an emergency.