By Carly Steinberger
On May 27th, Guatemala’s volcano, Pacaya, located just 19 miles from the capital, erupted. Lava flowed and rocks spewed from the volcano’s mouth, killing at least two people and injuring approximately 50 more. Just two days later, Hurricane Agatha hit Guatemala, causing both extreme flooding and landslides that buried people alive. As a result of this latest savage act of nature, more than 170 people died and over 100,000 others lost their homes. The tropical storm also created a 200 feet deep sinkhole in Guatemala City.
To make matters worse, about two weeks later, on June 10th, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court dismissed Attorney General Conrado Reyes, who had only held the position since May 25th. But his questionable past already had made him into a controversial figure. Just three days before he was removed from office, the Spanish judge Carlos Castresana resigned from his post as head of a United Nations body responsible for fighting impunity in Guatemala. He left in extreme frustration, citing the appointment of Reyes, who he claimed had close ties to organized crime. He further emphasized that Guatemala was doing little to combat corruption.
In early June, Guatemala city officials asked Washington to grant it Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This status is issued when a country is being scheduled to be placed under the category’s protection. Any nationals from that country who currently are living within the U.S. are issued a stay on their being required to be returned to their homeland, even if their tourist visas have expired in the interim. As a result of their being granted such status, they can remain in the United States and even obtain authorization to work here while in the country. Countries that have received TPS usually have experienced some form of natural disaster or are witnessing the brunt of some form of armed conflict.
The volcanic eruption and hurricane that slammed Guatemala, affected as many as 400,000 people. As August ran out, Guatemala still had not been placed under TPS. Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had drafted a letter to President Obama in July, urging him to extend TPS to the Central American nation. Kerry highlighted the crises that had been visited upon Guatemala as a result of the two major acts of nature, but also stressed the extreme impunity that exists within the nation (made all the more evident by the frustrated resignation of Castresana), furthering his argument that Guatemalans residing in the United States should not be forced to return to a ransacked and almost dysfunctional nation.
In Latin America today, four countries currently benefit from TPS. Haiti, due to the tragic January 2010 earthquake, is under TPS until January 2011. El Salvador has benefited from TPS since 2001, after experiencing an earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people, and Honduras and Nicaragua received TPS after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Responsible for nearly 11,000 deaths, Mitch was the strongest tropical storm of the 1998 hurricane season.
TPS has already expired for El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua numerous times, yet each time it was set to terminate, it has been renewed at the last minute. El Salvador is scheduled to be under TPS until March 2012, and Honduras and Nicaragua will enjoy TPS until January 2012. Yet, TPS seems unnecessary for these countries at this time. It has been nine years since the earthquake wracked El Salvador, and nearly 12 years since Hurricane Mitch tore through Honduras and Nicaragua. Since those events, these nations have made nearly full recoveries, at least from those acts of nature. Nicaragua, for example, has greatly expanded its tourism industry in recent years. With a growth rate of 70% over the past seven years, tourism is now Nicaragua’s second largest industry. If Nicaragua has now become an appealing place for foreigners to visit, it is highly unlikely that it is truly a derelict nation requiring a special status. Yet Nicaragua still benefits from TPS, whereas Guatemala, a country that is now actively suffering, does not enjoy that protection.
Even though the environmental disasters that plagued Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua caused more deaths than those in Guatemala, the number of people adversely affected by both the volcanic eruption and Hurricane Agatha cannot be trivialized. Furthermore, the precarious state of the Guatemalan democracy can only worsen if the nation’s recovery process is not assisted by the benefits of TPS.
Approximately 1.7 million Guatemalans live in the United States, and it is estimated that about 60% of them lack legal status. Since 2010 alone, more than 10,000 Guatemalan immigrants have been deported. It would be inappropriate to return more nationals to a ravaged homeland, where thousands are homeless and impunity is pervasive. President Obama should answer Guatemala’s plea and Senator Kerry’s request and place the country under TPS.
This article was prepared by COHA Research Associate Carly Steinberger