Aug. 20, 2004 With 292 displaced Montserratians facing an unwanted return home in February from what the U.S. government viewed as temporary residency in the United States, Sen. Lorraine Berry has written to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Secretary of State Colin Powell in hopes of getting federal authorities to change their minds.
"Depart to go where?" Berry asked, alluding to the dire conditions that continue to exist in Montserrat as a result of volcanic activity there since the mid-1990s.
The island's economy is in ruins, housing is in short supply and much of the island is under ash. No one knows when the volcano might again erupt.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen has also written to administration authorities raising objections, her aide Brian Modeste said.
The U.S. government granted Montserratians Temporary Protected Status in 1997 after frequent volcanic eruptions made a shambles of their island.
St. Thomas businessman Victor Sydney, a past president of the local Montserrat Society, said only about 4,000 of the 12,000 persons residing on Montserrat when the eruptions began in 1995 still live there.
While many of those who fled went to Great Britain, which rules Montserrat, 292 went to the United States.
Temporary Protected Status allows refugees from political or other forms of turmoil — in this case a natural disaster — to live and work in the United States until the crisis passes.
The U.S. government contends now that the temporary condition that forced the Montserrat residents to flee is now permanent. Therefore, their situation is no longer temporary and they must leave.
"One would think they would take a more humanitarian approach," Sydney said. "This will create a great hardship."
He said the bulk of the U.S.-based Montserratians are in the Boston and New York areas, but there are some on St. Thomas and St. Croix. Many of them support family members still in Montserrat who have no source of income, he said.
Sydney said that many of those in the United States have worked hard, bought homes, opened businesses and put down roots. Some have had children, who are U.S. citizens. "They are not a public charge. They are not a security risk," he said.
Berry made the same point in her letter to Ridge and Powell: "I know of no terrorist or armed insurgent group from the island. In fact, they are known within the region to be extremely peaceful, productive and civil." Further, she wrote, "There are no more than 12,000 Montserratians, and I cannot foresee a major demographic impact by these islanders on the mainland United States even if every single islander immigrated."
She asked that "another mechanism be explored that allows permanent residency status or citizenship" for the Montserratians.
Modeste said that while Great Britain will take in the 292 Montserratians, the U.S. government did not warn British officials of its plans to force them out.
A bill before Congress to grant the Montserratians permanent status has gone nowhere, Modeste said. However, he said the issue is gaining media attention, which is bringing pressure on the government to reverse its decision to force them out.
Sydney said anyone wanting more information on this matter can call him at 776-9379.
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