Central American immigrants can stay in U.S.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — Hailing a new era of peace in Central America, President Clinton assured the region’s leaders Thursday they need not fear mass deportations of immigrants who sought refuge in America during U.S.-backed conflicts.
“This is truly a new day for Central America,” Clinton said, acknowledging criticism that the United States had paid too little attention to the region once it was no longer a Cold War battleground.
Costa Rican President Jose Figueres proclaimed Clinton’s 2-hour summit “the beginning of a great new partnership.”
The most tangible result was an “open skies” agreement promising expanded and cheaper air travel from the United States. Leaders of the six Central American nations and the Dominican Republic also signed modest agreements on trade, crime fighting, drug control and the environment.
In a colorful opening to their meeting, the leaders rode into town in a parade of limousines as thousands of cheering young people lined the route. Thirty schools were closed to allow students to see the procession.
“We want to show him our feelings … a show of respect,” said Fanny Valerio, a 16-year-old student in a school uniform.
Clinton made special note that Central America is at peace after more than three decades of wars, some financed by the United States.
“A decade ago we focused on civil wars. Now together we are fighting against poverty and fighting for prosperity, stronger democracy and the sustainable development of our precious resources,” Clinton said at a news conference with Figueres and the leaders of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and the Dominican Republic.
At the top of the agenda were concerns that a new immigration law would force the mass return of Central Americans who sought asylum in the United States because of political turbulence at home.
Leaders here fear that a massive influx would cause social and economic problems and rob their countries of money sent home by relatives in the United States.
Clinton promised to enforce the law in a manner “which avoids destabilizing the nations and the economies of Central America, or creating enormous hardships for children and families.”
“There will be no mass deportations and no targeting of Central Americans under this law,” he declared.
In its most extreme application, the new law could force home an estimated 300,000 people, including 150,000 Salvadorans, 100,000 Guatemalans and 40,000 Nicaraguans, U.S. immigration chief Doris Meissner said. The law allows Clinton to exempt 4,000 people a year.
Clinton has until Oct. 1 to act on the law and said he would work with Congress “to try to figure out how to implement it.” He suggested that Congress might recognize Central America as “a rather special category.”
He drew a comparison with Vietnam, saying the United States was “quite generous” in welcoming immigrants after that war. “It seems to me we ought to be sensitive to the disruptions that were caused during those tough years that we were involved in as a nation,” Clinton continued.
In their private meetings, President Armando Calderon Sol of El Salvador asked that Clinton grant amnesty to all the immigrants, but Clinton did not respond, Meissner said.
Like a typical American tourist, Clinton stopped by an indoor market, La Casona, after lunch with the leaders.