Too Hot for the Homeland


The nearly 300 volcano victims who fled the microscopic Caribbean island of Montserrat for safety in the U.S. nearly a decade ago now have two weeks to get out, says the Department of Homeland Security. After living here under Temporary Protected Status, most of them have built entire new lives here—with careers, marriages, and American-born children. They don’t want to uproot again.

Even if they did want to go back to the ash-encrusted and still-percolating island, Montserrat’s government is understandably less than eager for their return. After the lid of the Soufriere volcano blew four miles high and Volkswagen-sized chunks of rock crushed houses and people, two-thirds of the island was BBQ’d and buried in ash, including the capital city of Plymouth. The few thousand who didn’t leave are now crowded onto about 13 square miles. There’s a major housing shortage, the fishing and farming industries are crippled, and the Soufriere is still foaming. Scientists think she’ll bubble and pop for at least another 20 years.

Brooklyn congressman Major Owens says this disaster was easy to predict when many of the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service were transferred from the Justice Department to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 under the Homeland Security Act. INS had been renewing the Montserratians’ status annually, but when the DHS took over, critics say, Tom Ridge could scarcely wait to cut the islanders loose. “The new bureaucracy’s preoccupation with security goes to the ridiculous,” Owens says. “The anti-immigration forces are so virulent. These are just 300 hard-working people.”

The Democratic congressman just sponsored a new bill that would grant Montserratians permanent residence. He remains optimistic, but this is his second try. His first bill (which was identical in substance) languished on the floor of an immigration subcommittee for two years before getting kicked to the curb.

In the July 6 notice posted in the Federal Register, the Department of Homeland Security took pains to emphasize that the Montserratians’ status was never meant to be anything other than temporary. To clear up any misunderstanding, the DHS provided the definition from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1998):

“The plain meaning of ‘temporary’ is ‘lasting for a time only’; ‘existing for a limited time; not permanent.’ ”

But it’s not the meaning of the fourth-grade vocabulary word that’s confusing the immigrants. It’s the U.S. government’s position, which is basically that because a dangerous situation is not likely to improve, the victims no longer deserve protection. (The Washington Post printed a strong editorial about this paradox last summer.)

DHS claims to understand the difficulty of sending families into harm’s way and suggests that anyone who prefers not to fly his or her U.S.-born kids into heaps of toxic volcanic ash make use of their British passports and go live in south London. Which, of course, is easier said than done.

It’s true that since 2002 Montserratians have enjoyed dual citizenship, but England is hardly their “motherland” (the odd word choice of a NYT reporter). Descendants of Irish deportees, African slaves, and Carib Indians, most Montserratians claim little in common with their former colonial master. Still, by now most would overlook the series of blatantly racist laws enacted from the 1960s through the early ’80s targeting them and other brown-skinned immigrants. The 2002 Overseas Territory Act improved their legal status, but relocating again will still be hard.