With four Central American countries reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Mitch, the Clinton administration is working out the final details of a plan to offer temporary refuge to hundreds of thousands of their citizens living in the United States, coupled with a regional aid package designed to prevent a major immigration crisis.
The administration plans to grant limited immigration status to citizens of the affected nations in order to avoid further disrupting the Central American economies by sending people back to places with extensive damage, no jobs and a mounting threat of disease, according to senior administration officials.
The refuge policy would allow citizens of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador who are already here, both legally and illegally, to remain in this country and work without fear of deportation. At least 30,000 people in the Washington area would be affected by the policy, according to the estimates of local Central American activists.
In the past, similar protection has been offered to people from strife-torn countries in Eastern Europe and Africa, usually for a year and subject to renewal. But as officials finalize details of the plan, they want to avoid creating a "magnet" for illegal immigration by giving the impression that the United States is tacitly welcoming all hurricane victims.
"It would have to be done in a way that it would not be seen as an open invitation," said Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Questions such as how long the temporary refuge would last and whether it would apply differently to citizens of the various countries are still being resolved. The most likely vehicle is a provision of law known as "temporary protected status" enacted in 1990 that allows the attorney general to determine that foreign nationals can remain in the United States because of dangers in their home countries due to armed conflict or environmental disaster.
Already as an initial step, the administration has suspended most deportations for people from the four countries, a measure affecting several thousand people.
Central American advocacy groups say the more extensive temporary protected status could cover around 400,000 people, including more than 90,000 illegal immigrants from Honduras. These groups hope the protection will be extended for at least 18 months, giving them time to lobby Congress for a permanent amnesty. They say it is also in the U.S. interest to let these people stay and work, since they collectively send home millions of dollars vital to their countries' economic recovery.
However, the very concept of temporary protected status is anathema to groups that advocate reducing immigration. "There is nothing as permanent as a temporary refugee," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
The result of extending the status to the Central Americans will be "the permanent immigration of large numbers of people and the creation or expansion of immigrant networks which will foster more future immigration," Krikorian said.
The new policy was lauded by Central American groups in the Washington area, where large numbers of immigrants from the affected countries have immigrated over the last two decades.
Granting temporary protection for Central Americans "makes a lot of sense, because they have nothing to go back to," said Sonia Gutierrez, director of a Latino charter school in the District that has been collecting relief supplies for the afflicted countries. "It would be cruel to try to send them back. To what? Total devastation? What would they do in their countries? It would be cruel, and the U.S. government is not cruel." She said many of her 1,200 students, mostly Central Americans, would be covered by the policy.
Immigration lawyer Luis Salgado said that if deportations to Central America are suspended, "there would be a great, great sense of relief to the Hispanic population in the Washington area."
Although "there aren't that many in deportation proceedings" now, Salgado said, "there are probably plenty more who could be in the future," and would be helped by such a policy. He called the proposed policy "a big relief" for the affected countries and "a big relief" for Hispanics in the Washington area.
Of the Central Americans in the metropolitan area, the vast majority are from El Salvador, the country that has sent the most immigrants here in recent years. In total, the four countries affected by the policy account for one in eight immigrants who have come to the Washington area over the past decade.
Saul Solorzano, a Salvadoran who is executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in the District's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, said the proposed policy "will be a right step for thousands of people that, if deported, will go to suffer extreme hardship."
Wilfredo Rodriguez, a Guatemalan who lives in Washington County, Md., and works as a gardener in Frederick, said he welcomed the proposed new policy. His application for legal residency in the United States forbids him to return to Guatemala, and he said he has not seen his family for five years.
Rodriguez said the proposed new policy "is a very important thing for us," if it makes it possible for him to live here without restrictions that prevent him from helping relatives in Guatemala and bringing his children here.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials have begun watching for signs of any large-scale movements of people across Central American borders. The scope of the devastation -- as many as 3 million people homeless and more than $4 billion worth of damage from flooding and mudslides -- has raised concerns that unless aid to the region is massive, immediate and sustained, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans could try to reach the United States.
So far, about 400 Guatemalans have crossed into Mexico in search of a haven from the wreckage, Mexican officials estimate. There have been no indications of larger movements.
While humanitarian concerns have been paramount in launching emergency relief efforts, administration officials said that preventing a major migration crisis is also an important consideration. Part of the goal, U.S. officials said, is to give the Central Americans economic incentives to remain in their homelands during what promises to be a long, difficult rebuilding process.
This approach is aimed not only at the poorest and most severely affected of Hurricane Mitch's victims, but at better-off urban residents who might flee as the economic wreckage spreads to the cities.
In a telephone conversation with President Clinton last week, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo expressed concern about a massive northward migration of Central Americans that would put strains on Mexico as well as the United States. Central American leaders also have warned of such an outcome.
"They'll walk, they'll swim, they'll run, but they'll go up north," Honduran President Carlos Flores told the BBC.
"The devastation is so great that in the short term it is hard to see how people will be able to move, but in the long term it is hard to see how there will not be a very substantial increase in migration pressure," said B. Lindsay Lowellof Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration.
The number of people uprooted by Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua already far exceeds the total displaced during the civil strife that wracked Central America in the 1980s. "If you look back to the 1980s as a guide, you might expect an even larger outflow," Lowell said.
"The president has made clear he wants a very comprehensive and significant response to the hurricane," said David C. Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council. A major aim of the administration is to "make sure we coordinate long-term reconstruction" in Central America, said Maria Echeveste, deputy White House chief of staff who is overseeing policy discussions.
So far, the United States has pledged more than $90 million in emergency aid and is considering more, officials said. At least 39 military helicopters have been sent to help in search and rescue efforts. Staff writers DVera Cohn and Martin Weil contributed to this report.