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Deadline Arrives to Renew Refugee Status

June 1, 2006

MIAMI (AP) _ Thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans who took refuge in the U.S. after Hurricane Mitch devastated their countries eight years ago were in danger of being deported if they failed to meet a Thursday deadline for filing paperwork needed to stay in the country.

The federal government said that by Wednesday only about half the 75,000 eligible Hondurans and 4,000 eligible Nicaraguans had submitted applications to renew their temporary protected status _ possibly because of confusion over a Senate bill that could make citizenship possible for some of them.

Those who failed to reapply by Thursday would likely see their status expire July 5 and be subject to deportation. Those who filed their applications at post offices and immigration centers would be allowed to remain for at least a year.

``It’s frustrating. We’re up against the clock,″ said Nora Sandigo, executive director of Fraternidad Nicaraguense, which helps Nicaraguan immigrants in Miami.

Nicaraguan Lidia Urbina said she waited until the last day because she needed to scrounge up the $250 renewal fee. The Miami resident cleans houses on weekdays and takes care of elderly people on weekends, but it’s barely enough to pay her living expenses and support her seven children in Managua.

Urbina, 49, feared she would be deported if she didn’t reapply. ``I was so nervous and worrying so much about this that I couldn’t sleep,″ she said.

Jose Lagos, president of Unidad Hondurena, a Honduran assistance group, said his office was filled Wednesday and Thursday as people filed last-minute renewals. ``This is not only happening in Miami. This is New York, Chicago, Los Angeles,″ he said.

Generally, those eligible for temporary protected status are unable to safely return to their home countries because of armed conflict, environmental disasters or other extraordinary conditions.

The status granted to Nicaraguans and Hondurans after Mitch, which killed 9,000 people in Central America, has been renewed several times. Critics of the nation’s immigration policies have complained that the temporary status is becoming permanent.

Activists, some U.S. lawmakers and Nicaraguan and Honduran officials have exhorted refugees to renew. Groups have staged rallies and knocked on doors to inform people of the deadline.

One reason for the slow response could be the ongoing political battle over immigration reform.

The U.S. Senate last week passed a bill that gives some illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens. The House, however, previously passed legislation that would make all illegal immigrants subject to felony charges, and it is unclear whether a compromise can be reached.

Sandigo said some immigrants who haven’t renewed said they were instead saving money for a guest worker or residency application, but that may never come.

___

Associated Press Writer Oskar Garcia in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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