WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration is about to grant special legal status to Nicaraguans who have fled the leftist Managua regime, allowing them to work in the United States without facing the risk of deportation, an Administration official said Thursday.
The " de facto legal status," the official said, is similar to that given people from Communist Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Poland who have come to the United States to avoid strife or persecution in their homelands.
The action is certain to draw protests from those in Congress and elsewhere who believe that citizens of El Salvador should also be granted the special status because they have emigrated to the United States to avoid guerrilla warfare there.
Supporters of Nicaraguans seeking legal status have lobbied Congress in recent days in an effort to pressure the U.S. government into granting them "extended voluntary departure status." The President has discretionary authority to give this status to immigrants who are seeking asylum in this country, allowing them to remain here for an indefinite period.
Officials have indicated that this specific status will not be granted. However, a senior Administration official reportedly told members of Congress that the White House would accept another type of legal status, one recommended by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that would allow Nicaraguans to stay here indefinitely and give them work permits.
In the last session of Congress, an intense battle was waged on behalf of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. About 500,000 of them are Salvadorans, and 150,000 to 200,000 are Nicaraguans.
The White House is opposed to granting such status to Salvadorans because it is seeking to portray the democratic government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte as stable and on its way to unifying the troubled nation. The State Department has opposed proposals to grant political refugee status to them, rejecting claims that they might be killed by government security forces or right-wing death squads.
Wants Temporary Refuge
Even Duarte has asked the Administration to bend the new U.S. immigration law to provide temporary refuge for an estimated half a million Salvadorans who have entered this country illegally, saying that a return of these people would further cripple the Salvadoran economy because so many of those working here send money home. That request was rejected.
"While we are sensitive to the potential problems raised by President Duarte, we have not recommended that the attorney general grant" an exemption for Salvadorans, State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said. The United States wants to avoid granting any exceptions that might be used as precedents for similar requests by other countries, she said.
"Duarte may well be the first casualty of the new immigration law," a congressional source said.
Under the law, which went into effect Nov. 6, 1986, illegal immigrants can apply for legal status in the United States if they were in this country since Jan. 1, 1982 or before. Many of the Nicaraguans arrived after that date and therefore would not be covered under the provisions allowing continued residence in the United States.
When asked whether the decision was likely to cause political problems, a Justice Department official replied: "Any relaxation on one group always creates pressure from another group."
But the congressional source said the Administration is "sneaking around, trying to appease the right wing" while forcing the Salvadorans to remain underground or leave the country.
Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), sponsor of legislation that would allow both Nicaraguans and Salvadorans who are already in the the United States to remain in the country legally, said the White House move "might be an attempt to sabotage my bill."