Deporting the “Huddled Masses”

by on August 9th, 2004

The U.S. government is revoking the refugee status of 292 former residents of the Caribbean island of Montserrat, which has been experiencing deadly volcanic activity since 1995. The reason: it’s not safe for them to go home, and it may never be.

This means that, while the danger is still as present and serious as ever, it’s not “temporary” enough to suit the Department of Homeland Security (I nearly typed “Homeless Security” there by mistake, but that might be more accurate in this case). So if the refugees don’t leave by January, they’ll be deported, although it’s unclear to where.

In all previous cases where temporary protected status was granted, the refugees were allowed to remain in the U.S. until it was safe to return home. For refugees fleeing genocide in Bosnia, it took 8 years for the U.S. government to determine that it was safe for them to return, and even then, residents of Kosovo and other ethnic minorities who were afraid for their safety often successfully applied to extend protection. Currently designated countries include Burundi (residents fleeing armed conflict since 1997), El Salvador (earthquakes since 1998), Honduras (hurricane activity since 1998), Liberia (armed conflict since 1991), Nicaragua (hurricane activity since 1998), Sierra Leone (armed conflict since 1997), Somalia (armed conflict, famine since 1991), and Sudan (armed conflict, genocide since 1997). In all of those cases, temporary protected status has been extended several times when immigration officials determined that it would not be safe for residents to return home after the previously designated expiration date.

To be fair, the remaining residents of Montserrat have begun rebuilding. However, officials there have stated that the previously self-sufficient island has no means to house or feed those still living there, much less others who may be forced to leave homes and jobs here to return there. Nearly all of the most arable land is buried under lava, and most of the formerly major cities are uninhabitable due to threats of future eruptions. In fact, before our DHS had its color-coded terror alert system, the Monserratians had their own color-coded system–to determine whether it’s safe to leave the volcano shelter today.

The most likely option for most of the stranded islanders is Britain. Because Montserrat is a British colony, former residents are entitled to British citizenship, but technically only if they fled the island directly to Britain. Moreover, while refugees here are mostly settled, employed, and have made American lives for themselves, moving to Britain would mean living in temporary shelters and relying on the dole to support themselves. Even the British government is unsure whether it can promise these people anything like the lives they have built for themselves over their eight years in the U.S. But unless public outcry develops, these “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” will have to find somewhere else to do it by January.

Amy Phillips