Islanders fear forced return to battered nation
A decision by the U.S. to send nationals from Montserrat back home has rocked the community.
By JACQUELINE CHARLES
Eunicia Dyer never thought she would be forced to return to the world she left -- one partially covered in ash, a graveyard of the unusable and uninhabitable.
But that is exactly where the United States wants to send her and 291 others from the volcano-ravaged Caribbean island of Montserrat.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, acknowledging Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano could ''continue to erupt sporadically for decades,'' recently announced it was ending ''temporary protected status'' for Montserratians who reside in the United States under that status.
Come Feb. 27, 2005, they will have to go back or face deportation, authorities warned.
''What are we going to do?'' said Dyer, who moved to South Florida in 1997 after the U.S. government decided to grant Montserratians the temporary designation.
First instituted by the U.S. Congress in 1990, the temporary relief allows refugees escaping political turmoil or certain disasters to legally live and work in the United States until their issues are resolved. There are currently more than 400,000 individuals in the program.
It was never meant to be a permanent offering, say DHS officials in Washington, D.C., who have come under attack for the agency's decision.
News of the decision has rocked the small Caribbean community in much the same way the venting volcano buried much of the southern half of the British territory, forcing thousands to flee to England, other Caribbean islands and the United States.
''Nobody can understand the logic of this. It doesn't make sense,'' said Kathleen Tuitt, a legal U.S. resident and Montserrat native who has unsuccessfully tried to reach out to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to plead the case on behalf of her fellow Montserratians.
''It's only 200 and some people. There are a lot of other people from other countries who have the same status and they are not pulling their status. I am wondering why the Montserratians?'' she asked.
For Tuitt and others the issue is clear: After years of hoping the volcano's eruptions would stop, many Montserratians have given up hope of resuming their lives on the island and have began putting down roots in the United States. They work, pay taxes and are good citizens.
A NEW LIFE
Theresa and Thomas Lee are among them. The couple opened a business in Gainesville, cleaning homes and offices, and built a house after realizing their once-unspoiled island would remain covered in ash.
''What I am doing here in Gainesville, I wouldn't be doing this in my own island,'' said Theresa Lee, who owned a restaurant in Montserrat that is now in the evacuation zone. ``I didn't want to go on the welfare system here.''
The Lees moved to Florida just days after the Clinton administration signed off on the TPS for Montserratians -- and after learning from a group of seismologists eating at the restaurant that the volcano would blow -- again.
''You were always waiting for the sirens to come and grab that little bag they tell you to pack with just your toothbrush and soap,'' said Theresa Lee, tearful as she recalled the life she left behind. ``For two years, I lived through that.''
No longer able to live in fear and uncertainty, she and her husband grabbed the black bag one day, hopped on one of the last helicopter rides to nearby Antigua and arrived in Miami hours later. As predicted, the volcano erupted a few days later.
''I am shocked,'' Lee said of the Bush administration's decision. ``I feel like [I did] when the volcano blew up and the cops said you have to evacuate. That is the exact feeling I got when I heard we have to go home.''
But returning to Montserrat isn't the only option.
In August 1996, the British government waived a three-year residency requirement for Montserrat nationals, allowing them to become eligible for social benefits, including healthcare and education. About 3,000 Montserratians, including Lee's daughter, have taken advantage of the provision, which remains in place until 2005.
''I can't live in England,'' said Lee, who suffers from allergies and can't live in the country's damp and gray weather. ``There are people I know who are still living in boarding homes, waiting for a house to be placed in England. It cannot accommodate everybody.''
There is yet one other loophole -- the U.S. Congress.
''Congress reserves the sole authority and power to grant any TPS group permanent resident legal status,'' said Dan Kane, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, D.C.
But a congressional bill, filed in February 2003 by U.S. Representative Major R. Owens, D-Brooklyn, to provide Montserratians with permanent U.S. residency hasn't budged from the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration, border security and claims. To become law, the bill would need a three-fifth vote by Congress.
''My boss has been working very hard to change the status,'' said Owens' legislative director, Larry Walker, noting the bill was first filed during the 2001-02 session. ``It's very difficult to change the status of any group particularly in these times.''
Owens said while the small number of individuals affected could be part of the problem, so could be anti-immigrant sentiments following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.
In the meantime, the Montserrat government -- through its British representatives -- is talking to the United States about the matter, said Keith Greaves, a spokesman for the Montserrat government.
Even though the volcano hasn't had any major eruptions lately recently, Greaves said his government was still taken by surprise by the U.S.'s decision and now finds itself in a quandary.
On one hand, the Montserrat government wants residents back to assist in its rebuilding efforts, which includes building a new capital; the old one -- Plymouth -- is buried under ash.
It needs expertise, investment and people. But the island is facing a housing shortage.
Since the volcano broke its silence in 1995, Montserrat has gone from 40 square miles to just 17 inhabitable square miles. The population has dipped from about 12,000 to less than 5,000.
''We are very concerned about those nationals from Montserrat who are under this program,'' Greaves said in a telephone interview from Montserrat.
''Yes we would like for our people to come back and help with the redevelopment,''
Greaves said. 'But because of this situation in terms of housing, the feedback
we are getting is `Where are they going to live?' ''