Post-Mitch Central America: The U.S. Response

September 25, 2007

Though the mainstream U. S. media stopped reporting the devastation left by Hurricane Mitch a few weeks after the storm had passed, the U.S. government continued to implement a multifaceted program of direct aid, debt relief and temporary relief for immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua. The biggest source of this continuing aid was a public law entitled the "Emergency Supplemental Package for Central America, the Caribbean and Colombia." The law, which went into effect on May 20-—seven months after the hurricane—increases the total U.S. government's contribution to the reconstruction and relief efforts in those three areas by $956 million.

While the bulk of this money is earmarked for Central America, the $956 million figure includes $60 million for the Caribbean nations hit by Hurricane Georges last summer and for Colombia to use towards its post-1998 earthquake clean-up efforts. There is $2 million for landmine clearing and over $150 million to replenish the funds of the disaster-relief accounts of the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.AID) and the Department of Defense, which had been seriously depleted by their recent relief efforts. Also, of this $956 million package, $41 million is earmarked for debt relief. A little more than half of that goes to the Central American Emergency Trust Fund, set up by the World Bank to help Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras meet their debt service on loans issued by multilateral lending institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The U.S. government has deferred Honduras and Nicaragua's debt-service obligations for 1999-2000—totaling about $54 million—and agreed to the Paris Club's decision do the same. This action presumably frees up an additional $300 million for the Central American governments' relief efforts. A later Paris Club agreement provided a 67% debt reduction on eligible debt for Honduras. Additionally, Nicaragua and Honduras have been classified by the IMF as Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), thus making them eligible for further debt-service relief on World Bank and IMF loans. The HIPC process is a long one, however, and neither country has yet attained debt-reduction status.

In addition, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. Attorney General's office have announced that Hondurans and Nicaraguans who were residing in the United States as of December 30, 1998 could apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months. If granted TPS, immigrants from these nations will not be deported and will be eligible to work in the United States until July 5, 2000. To be granted this eligibility, Hondurans and Nicaraguans must fill out four forms, prove their nationality and show residence in the United States as of the December cut-off date. They must also pay up to $175 in filing fees, making this a cumbersome and pricey endeavor. In an effort to accommodate the difficulties many face in getting any sort of official documentation from their country of birth, Washington announced on July 1 that it was extending the deadline to file for TPS. While the Hondurans and Nicaraguans can receive TPS status, immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador who were detained by INS at the time of the hurricane were permitted only a stay of deportation.

Despite initial speculation on all sides that there would be a huge increase in the numbers of immigrants from Central America due to Mitch's devastation, the INS reports that statistics since the storm have shown no noticeable increase in the flow of Central Americans to the United States. Just in case, however, the INS did start a large "public service" campaign in Central America and Mexico explaining the dangers of crossing the border.

Lauren Hickey is an editorial staff assistant at NACLA.

Tags: Hurricane Mitch, US aid, US immigration

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