The Miami Herald
Aug. 09, 2004

Islanders who fled volcano are ordered to leave the U.S.

The U.S. government opened its doors to citizens of a tiny Caribbean island fleeing a volcano in 1995. Now the same people are being shown the door.

New York Times Service

The volcano on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat had been slumbering for centuries when it awoke in 1995. Within two years, 7,000 people -- two-thirds of the population -- had to flee.

Most went to other Caribbean islands or to Great Britain, which colonized Montserrat in the 17th century and still governs it. Fewer than 300 ended up in the United States, mostly living with relatives in New York and Boston.

Because it was unsafe to send them back after their visitors visas expired, the U.S. government granted the Montserratians ''temporary protected status,'' renewed year by year so they could legally stay and work until the worst was over.

Now, in a twist in immigration politics, the Department of Homeland Security is ordering the 292 Montserratians to leave by the end of February -- not because it is safe to go home again, but because it is not going to be safe anytime soon.

''The volcanic activity causing the environmental disaster in Montserrat is not likely to cease in the foreseeable future,'' Homeland Security officials said in a June 25 notice ending Montserratians' temporary protected status effective Feb. 27, 2005.

''Therefore it no longer constitutes a temporary disruption of living conditions that temporarily prevents Montserrat from adequately handling the return of its nationals,'' the notice said.

The decision has stunned islanders who rebuilt their lives in America from scratch.

''It's devastating,'' said Sarah Ryner, 59, a public health nurse supervisor who lost her home and career in the eruption's aftermath and now works night shifts at a New Jersey hospital. 'I'm just frozen, and my children are the same. We are saying, `What can we do? Where can we go?' ''

Homeland Security's answer: Move to England.

Montserrat is one of Britain's last overseas territories, with many of its people descendants of the African slaves and Irish penal deportees sent to toil there 400 years ago. Citing scientific estimates that dangerous volcanic activity is likely to continue for at least 20 years, and perhaps for centuries, the Homeland Security notice advises those who choose not to return to the devastated island to consider exercising their claim to British citizenship.

The notice also apparently took the British government by surprise. British officials are asking the U.S. government for more information.

A spokesman for Homeland Security, William Strassberger, acknowledged that in other cases, temporary protected status ended only when a crisis was over -- for Bosnians after the genocidal war stopped, for example, or for El Salvadorans when hurricane damage was cleaned up.

''The fact is, temporary protected status is not meant to be a permanent solution,'' Strassberger said. ``In this particular case, there is no end in sight.''