INS Is Denying Protection to Honduran Victims of Hurricane Mitch, Immigrants' Rights Groups Charge

November 16, 1999 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — Immigration officials are ignoring a Presidential order allowing Hondurans to live and work temporarily in the United States after Hurricane Mitch devastated their country, a coalition of immigrant advocates said today.

In a federal class-action lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and others charged that the Immigration and Naturalization Service violated the law when it refused four individuals – and likely thousands more – the right to work legally and stay temporarily in the U.S. while their families try to rebuild shattered lives back home.

On January 5, Attorney General Janet Reno granted “temporary protected status” to Hondurans living in the U.S. at the time of the disaster, allowing them to live and work legally for an 18-month period.

But while many Hondurans have benefited from the humanitarian program, an immigration service center in Vermont which oversees 13 Eastern states plus Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, has consistently delayed or denied work authorization in direct violation of federal law, the groups charged. As a result, 11 months after the program started, thousands of Hondurans are still waiting for documents authorizing them to work and stay in the United States.

The lawsuit asks the court to find those officials in violation of the law and direct the agency to comply immediately with the President’s order.

Christopher Meade, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project in New York, called the agency’s actions “lawless and cruel.”

“The INS’ illegal actions have added to the devastation faced by thousands of Hondurans and directly contradicts the President’s instruction to provide humanitarian relief,” he said.

While the lawsuit names four individuals currently living in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, Charles Wheeler of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network estimated that several thousand Hondurans have been affected by the renegade policy.

“Temporary protected status is nothing new — it has been used with dozens of countries,” Wheeler said. “The INS has never requested this level of documentation.”

The designation of “temporary protected status” is rare and is made only in cases of “extraordinary and temporary conditions” such as natural disasters or “armed conflict,” according to immigration law.

Recognizing that applicants would need to work and live legally in the U.S. while awaiting approval, Congress specifically allowed for “temporary treatment” benefits to be granted to those whose requests were pending. But immigration officials in Vermont granted only 25 percent of those requests, the lawsuit charged, leaving Hondurans in danger of deportation and unable to earn money to send home to families who had lost everything.

“Contrary to what immigration officials in Vermont may believe, temporary protected status is not a suggestion, it is a Congressional statute,” said Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“The President did the right thing in granting temporary protected status to Hondurans. Now we must turn once again to the federal courts to control a lawless federal agency,” he added.

The case is Canales v. Novak, No. CV-99-7450, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York by Charles Wheeler and Helen Morris of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.; ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorneys Lucas Guttentag and Christopher J. Meade; Linton Joaquin of the National Immigration Law Center; and Elizabeth Hamlin of the American Immigration Law Foundation.

Defendants in the case are Paul Novak, Director of the Vermont Service Center; the U.S. Department of Justice; the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Doris M. Meissner, Commissioner of the U.S. INS; and Janet Reno, U.S. Attorney General.

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