Central American leaders fear economic backlash from U.S. immigration policy


SAN SALVADOR -- Central American presidents will carry the divisive issue of immigration to next month's Summit of the Americas in Miami, where they plan to tell President Clinton that only improved economies can staunch the northward flow of illegal immigrants.

Expressing outrage at California's Proposition 187 and other symptoms of what they see as an anti-immigrant backlash, the region's leaders have begun a full-scale lobbying effort to prevent a feared massive return of citizens to cash-strapped and politically troubled home countries.

"There is a kind of new racism [in the United States] that is very dangerous," said President Armando Calderon Sol of El Salvador. "We are extremely worried about our compatriots . . . [and] we must study why the U.S. people are turning to rejection of minorities."

"Denying health and education to children is really deplorable," said the president of Honduras, Carlos Roberto Reina, echoing others who have said that the California measure, approved overwhelmingly by voters, violates basic human rights.

Many Central Americans rely on money that their relatives living in the United States send home. An end to those remittances, because Central Americans are either being deported or forced further underground, would spell disaster for the region, officials here argue.

The case of El Salvador is especially acute. Salvadorans in the United States were granted temporary protected status in 1990 because of the civil war that raged between leftist guerrillas and a U.S.-backed government in El Salvador. That special status allowed many Salvadorans to live and work in the United States legally. It expires at the end of the year, and with the war officially over since 1992, an extension seems unlikely. The prospect has sent Salvadoran officials into panic.

Mr. Calderon Sol made a personal appeal to Vice President Al Gore during an ecological meeting last month in Managua, Nicaragua, and Salvadorans on both the left and right are lobbying to have the status extended, saying the stability of a country emerging from more than a decade of war is at stake.

The remittances from Salvadorans in the United States exceed $800 million annually, more than all export income combined, according to the Central Bank here.

Thousands of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans also send home money that is crucial to those nations' economies. Neither group has the same protected status as the Salvadorans, but through asylum and other programs, many have been able to establish legal, if temporary, stays.

"Our fear is the 187 phenomenon is going to spread," said Managua Mayor Arnoldo Aleman. "It is not going to stop in California."

Mr. Clinton and 33 of the hemisphere's heads of state begin the three-day summit on Dec. 9.

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