Montserrat refugees to be deported from U.S.

Sunday, February 27, 2005 A last gasp effort is underway to prevent the deportation of Montserratian refugees from New York City, U.S.A., to the disaster-stricken volcanic island they fled ten years ago.

Representative Major Owens (D, NY), of Brooklyn, is hoping the outpouring of support for victims of the Asian tsunami will save the refugees from returning to an island with an active volcano that is at constant risk of a further catastrophe.

Until last year, the Department of Homeland Security had allowed the families to stay in the United States under a special designation called “Temporary Protected Status”. But in July, secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, withdrew the status—not because it was safe to return to Montserrat, but because the volcano would remain active for decades to come and therefore was no longer a “temporary” danger. On February 27, the city’s estimated 100 Montserratians and their families will be forced to leave or risk deportation. A further 200 families, many of them living in Boston, are also under threat.

Earlier efforts to win a reprieve for the Montserratians were blocked by anti-immigrant forces in the House of Representatives, led by congressman Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, Rep. Owens said. But he added that a new bill, which he introduced at the end of last month, might be more popular in the wake of the Asian disaster.

"We hope that the approaching emergency situation plus the drama of the tsunami will help change some of the attitudes about this," Rep. Owens said. "And some of the people who opposed this legislation on the basis that they opposed immigration, will see that it is not about immigration but about coming to the relief of people who have been victims of a natural disaster."

Meanwhile, New York’s tiny Montserratian community must wait and hope. For those not fortunate enough to have married a US citizen or to have found an employer willing to sponsor them, the coming weeks are crucial.

Pearl Ryner, 40, a refugee who works as a medical technician at the King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn, said she refused to get married just so that she can stay in the United States. But she is a single mother with four children and she does not want to uproot her family and start over again.

“I worry. I cry. I am still hoping,” Ms. Ryner said. “What do I do? Where do I begin? How do I pick four kids up and take them away? If I buy a plane ticket, where do I go? These are questions that I do not have an answer for.”

The Department of Homeland Security has suggested that because Montserrat is a British overseas territory, Montserratians should go to the UK. But the refugees say they have no relatives or friends they can stay with in the UK, and that they have made homes and started careers and lives in the United States.

If the refugees are deported to Montserrat it will be to a 35 square-mile island, two-thirds of which is buried beneath volcanic rubble and ash. The capital, Plymouth, in the south east of the island has been abandoned, and there is a housing and employment shortage.

The Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted in 1995, but the British Foreign Office website warns that the volcano remains active. Heavy rain can cause mud-flows, and people suffering from breathing problems risk airborne dust and volcanic ash. The collapse of a lava dome in 2001 spewed clouds of ash that affected Puerto Rico, a self-governing territory of the United States, 200 miles away.

Moreover continued volcanic activity is triggering landslides that have caused two tsunamis in Montserrat during the past ten years. The first, on December 26, 1997, created a wave three meters tall, which rolled northwards along the coast. The second, in July 2003, measured about four meters and traveled to Guadeloupe 30 miles away.

Sherry Coriette, 28, who works for a major retail company in New York, said that she still has not decided what to do. "I have a good job, I pay my bills," Ms. Coriette said. "Eight years ago I left with nothing and now I am having to face starting all over again."

Matthew Dunn, chairman of the New York Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that as long as there was a potential for danger, the United Sates should offer the people of Montserrat a safe haven.

"I would argue that is what our country is all about: helping and protecting people," Mr. Dunn said. "But the biggest shame in all of this is that because there is so few of them, they do not have a big enough voice."


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