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Immigrants' Plight at Issue in Costa Rica Talks

Diplomacy: Central American refugees who face deportation from U.S. are expected to be a key topic as Clinton meets leaders of seven nations.


The end of Central American warfare and the passage of tough new immigration laws have combined to raise the prospect of deportation for about 300,000 Central Americans in Southern California and elsewhere who have been living in the United States legally for years.

The thorny issue--which has raised anxieties in both the United States and Central America--is likely to be near the top of the agenda today as President Clinton meets in Costa Rica with presidents of seven nations in the region.

No resolution is expected today, but Clinton administration officials confirmed that negotiations with Congress were continuing in an effort to ease the deportation threat for longtime legal residents from Central America and other countries. However, the Republican-controlled Congress has thus far resisted a legislative fix.

The possibility of large-scale deportations of established Central American immigrants has sparked vociferous protests in Los Angeles, center of the El Salvadoran and Guatemalan exile populations, and in Miami, the major destination for Nicaraguans. Religious and community leaders plan a demonstration at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles at noon today to coincide with the summit in Costa Rica.

The issue has also been a major preoccupation for weeks in Central America, where tenuous, post-civil war economies depend on remittances from exiles in the United States and where nations are ill-equipped to handle a massive influx of returnees.

In California, social service groups report being besieged with inquiries from panicked Central American immigrants--many with children born or reared here--who must now contemplate forced return to homelands still reeling from years of political and social upheaval. U.S. officials have said deportations will be on a case-by-case basis, but such assurances have not quelled fears.

"Going back would be a catastrophe for us," said Ana Garcia of Downey, a Salvadoran who awaits a deportation hearing in August that will determine the fate of her family of seven, including five children who speak English and consider themselves Americans.

Her family, Garcia said, fled to the United States in 1988 after receiving death threats from leftist guerrillas who operated near their home in the coffee-growing region of Santa Ana. Her husband, Manuel Garcia, now runs a produce trucking business here that supports his wife and children and has financed the purchase of two homes.

Just last month, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began reviewing most Central Americans' long-deferred claims for political asylum. U.S. administrations since 1990 have permitted about 300,000 Central Americans to remain in the United States with temporary legal protection, bolstering hopes that some broad resolution of their cases would eventually be reached.

But the belated review of the asylum applications kicked off just as new federal laws came into effect that strictly limit "hardship" exemptions from deportations--the legal route that most Central Americans had pinned their hopes on. Among other things, Congress imposed a 4,000 annual cap on hardship grants, a limit that has already been reached this year.

Meanwhile, with open warfare in the immigrants' home countries concluded for now, experts say most Central American applicants will probably be denied asylum and face formal deportation orders. Legal appeals may delay deportations for years, but the strict new guidelines mean that relatively few will be able to avert expulsion without substantial legal or administrative changes, observers say.

Federal officials vow that the process will be fair. "We understand the panic in the Central American community, but we ask them to be patient and understanding of the due process they are entitled to," said Brian Jordan, an INS spokesman.

In an interview this week with Univision, the Spanish-language TV network, President Clinton called the Central American dilemma "a very difficult problem" that he was "very personally concerned about" and working to resolve.

Clinton pointed to a central paradox: Washington allowed the Central Americans to remain here legally, but the 300,000 people affected never qualified as permanent legal immigrants. That prevented them from becoming U.S. citizens, a status that would have shielded them and their families from deportation.

The Central Americans' predicament is to a large extent a legacy of bitter wars that convulsed the region during the 1970s and '80s. By some accounts, those fleeing en masse included 1 million Salvadorans--almost 20% of the nation's population. Most came to the United States, but many settled in Mexico, Canada and Europe.

Thousands of Nicaraguans fleeing the leftist Sandinista government were granted political asylum and, ultimately, permanent residence. But about 40,000 Nicaraguans were left in legal limbo and are now seeking hardship exceptions to deportation.

Efforts to block the expulsion of the longtime Central American residents have run up against a stumbling block in Congress, which tightened laws last year in an effort to make deportation easier and close much-criticized legal "loopholes" that dragged out the process for years.

But immigrant advocates say that Washington has a moral responsibility to extend permanent legal status to the Central Americans because U.S. policies contributed to the regional conflicts and the immigrants' return could rekindle problems in their homelands.

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