WASHINGTON (March 25, 1999) -- Recovery efforts following last year's devastating Hurricane Mitch could be boosted with two changes in U.S. immigration policy, according to a letter to President Clinton released today.
"We commend your Administration for providing financial and other forms of assistance to the Central American region since Hurricane Mitch," said Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference in his March 23 letter. "An immigration policy which reflects the interdependence of the nations of Central America also would help ensure full recovery of the region."
The first of the two policy changes Bishop Fiorenza urged the President to make is the designation of "temporary protected status" for El Salvador and Guatemala. A TPS designation for a country means the government suspends deportation of that country's nationals for an established period of time and allows them to obtain work permits. In December, the Clinton Administration granted a TPS designation for Honduras and Nicaragua for a period of 18 months. At that time, Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals were granted a 60-day stay of deportation, which allowed them to remain in the United States but did not include work authorizations. The stay of deportation expired March 8.
"We remain concerned for the nationals of El Salvador and Guatemala, who, at the time, were given a stay of deportation for 60 days," said Bishop Fiorenza. "We ask that you reconsider your decision and designate El Salvador and Guatemala for TPS equal to the time period given Honduras and Nicaragua. At the least, we ask that you again stay deportation of these nationals until the region can recover from this humanitarian disaster."
In addressing the damage caused by Hurricane Mitch, the U.S. Catholic Conference has consistently argued that any U.S. response be regional in nature.
"It is our view," wrote Bishop Fiorenza, "that the impact of the storm was regional and deserves a regional response."
Bishop Fiorenza also urged President Clinton to grant an "extreme hardship" classification for Salvadorans and Guatemalans eligible for relief under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 (NACARA).
NACARA was enacted to assist eligible nationals from certain Central American nations, and their families, who fled to the United States during the civil wars which ravaged that region in the 1980s. While never granted a permanent status by the U.S. government, many have resided in the United States with government knowledge and support, and have established homes and businesses here. Many have U.S.-born children, who according to the Constitution, are U.S. citizens. Without NACARA, many of these Central American war refugees would have faced deportation.
"A designation of 'extreme hardship' would give many in the NACARA class who have fled civil strife and built equities in the United States a better opportunity to obtain legal permanent residency," said Bishop Fiorenza, of Galveston-Houston. "It also would allow them to continue to work and send remittances back to their home country."
The U.S. Catholic Conference has petitioned the Clinton Administration before on these two issues.
Text of Bishop Fiorenza's letter.