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Volcanic Absurdity

Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page B06

WITH ALL THE heightened concerns about terrorism, you might think the Department of Homeland Security has something better to do with its time and energy than throw victims of natural disasters out of the United States. But that's because, like most Americans, you probably missed a recent notice in the Federal Register informing victims of a massive volcanic eruption on the Carribean island of Montserrat that they had to leave this country by February.

After the eruptions started in 1995, 292 Montserrat residents were granted what is called Temporary Protected Status here in the United States. The status allows refugees of political or other turmoil abroad to live and work here until the crisis at home abates. Crisis abatement, unfortunately, has not happened in Montserrat. Dangerous eruptions of this previously dormant volcano called Soufriere Hills have continued and are not expected to stop any time soon. The notice helpfully explains that "many nationals of Montserrat remain unable to return to their homes in the southern part of the island. In addition to the prospect of volcanic destruction, returning residents possibly would be subject to contracting the lung disease silicosis and other health risks caused by ash that periodically covers much of the island." Indeed, in an ironic twist, DHS is kicking out the refugees precisely because the situation at home has not improved. Since the eruptions "are unlikely to cease in the foreseeable future, they can no longer be considered 'temporary,' " so residents of the island no longer qualify for "temporary" protection.

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Why exactly DHS has taken this absurd and cruel step is a bit of mystery. The Montserrat refugees are hardly a drain on American society. And the crisis that led them to flee their homes was not one of their own making. While DHS officials argue that the permanent solution is for them to go to Great Britain, which rules the island, why it is reasonable or humane to uproot them at all?

William Strassberger, a department spokesman, correctly notes that this question arises whenever temporary protected status is lifted and people who are working and have raised their children in the United States are forced to leave. Indeed, it may make sense for there to be some process by which people who have been here for years under the program can become permanent residents. Surely, however, it is wrong for this country -- having promised people haven -- to renege on that promise because the problem that drove them here turns out to be more severe and more intractable than policymakers imagined.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company