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U.S. Law Dims Hopes of Poor in Central America


SANTA ELENA, El Salvador — In the dozen years of combat connected with this nation's civil war, this steamy town of cobblestoned streets was racked by violence, poverty and despair. One by one, the teachers college, the coffee-processing plant and the nearby cotton gin all shut down. And soon Santa Elena was left with no jobs and no cash crops.

For many families, migration became the only way to survive. Townsfolk felt they had no choice but to send family members to Los Estados--the United States--to find jobs so they could send money home.

Now, a study indicates, migrants support 42% of the families here in Santa Elena, offering them ways to thrive and rebuild their lives.

But in Santa Elena and across Central America, hope is suddenly fading.

Tighter U.S. immigration laws that took effect April 1, combined with stepped-up American deportation efforts and general anti-immigrant sentiment, are shutting off the escape valve that allowed Central Americans to flee wars of the 1980s marked by U.S. involvement--and the economic upheaval of the decade that has followed.

Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Los Angeles, Nicaraguans in Miami and Hondurans in Texas and Louisiana are being pushed out and are complaining loudly in the United States.

Meantime, the migrants' home countries are steeling themselves for a twofold economic disaster: Officials envision a deluge of job seekers in nations whose unemployment rates already approach 50%, as in Nicaragua; they also fear the loss of the billions of dollars that migrants send home, sums that represent the biggest single source of foreign-exchange revenue in El Salvador.


In addition, more than one-third of the Central American deportees in the last six months were criminals, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service figures show.

That means that, in addition to the other woes, the Central American nations must grapple with hardened criminals who will be dumped on their shores--at a time when their police forces already are overwhelmed by postwar crime waves.

Besides the convicted criminals, about 300,000 former war refugees--who have lived in the United States legally while their political asylum claims were processed--face almost certain denial of asylum now that combat in their homelands has ended. (A Miami judge, however, has temporarily halted deportations of former refugees.)

An unknown number of undocumented immigrants also fear deportation as the INS works toward its goal of sending 93,000 foreigners home this year--one-third more than in 1996.

In the six months ending March 31, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala ranked right behind Mexico in the number of citizens returned by the INS. Although Central America accounted for 12% of the total, far less than Mexico's 74%, the effect of the deportations is much greater in these countries, which are smaller than many American states, researchers say.

"For us, a country with such difficult social, economic and political conditions, the return of these Salvadorans could create a crisis," said Victoria Marina de Aviles, the Salvadoran attorney general for human rights. "We realize that a country has a right to exercise its sovereignty [by controlling immigration], but what we ask is respect for human rights."

In his recent meeting with Central American leaders, President Clinton promised that there will be no mass deportations of Central Americans.

But individual deportations are already tearing apart families. Carla Sanabria, for example, lived in Miami for 12 years under the special status given Nicaraguans fleeing the civil war that ended in her country in 1990.

She finished high school and, for the last eight years, worked as a waitress at the Dadeland Mall, supporting herself and her 6-year-old son. "I have never asked the government for anything," she said.

Two years ago, she married a U.S. citizen. He suggested that his wife change her precarious refugee status for residency as the spouse of a citizen. They hired a lawyer and paid him more than $1,000 to process the paperwork, Sanabria said. But on April 29, when she thought she was going to the INS office to pick up her new resident-alien card, she was deported to Nicaragua.

"I felt like a cockroach," she said tearfully, adding that she received no explanation of the U.S. government's action, which her husband--who has custody of her child--is contesting in the U.S.

The INS refuses to comment on individual cases.

The $20 in Sanabria's billfold barely covered the taxi fare to her hometown of Masaya, about an hour from the airport, where she tried to remember the address of grandparents she had not seen in more than a decade.

"There is a poverty here that I never imagined," she said of Nicaragua. "What will happen to my son if he comes here?"

As for Central American countries, many of them are fretting about what will become of many of their people who have come to rely on migrants to help relieve the grinding poverty in the region via money they send home--"remittances."

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