Department of Justice officials took a first step last month toward finally closing out the cases of an estimated 240,000 Central Americans who have been living in legal limbo since they fled their war-torn countries to seek asylum in this country.

As of January 29, the Immigration and Naturalization Service placed a moratorium on interviews for El Salvadorans and Guatemalans who applied for amnesty under a special program. The order to suspend the hearings was issued after Attorney General Janet Reno's office signaled that she is considering ways to make it easier for these immigrants to obtain legal residency.

Moreover, when hearings resume they will be conducted by INS asylum officers instead of the immigration judges who normally handle deportation cases, according to Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the INS in Washington, D.C. Immigrant-rights advocates say that is an important step because so much time has lapsed since most Central Americans first filed their applications. Conditions in their homelands have changed during the interim, making it difficult to meet the hardship requirements that apply in routine asylum cases.

The new procedures are expected to help those Salvadorans and Guatemalans who fled their homelands during the 1980s. Most of them entered the U.S. illegally, then applied for political asylum. The majority of those applications were denied, prompting a class-action lawsuit by the American Baptist Churches, which accused the INS of discriminating against the Central Americans by ignoring their legitimate claims. The lawsuit was eventually settled in 1991 by the Bush administration, which granted them temporary status until their cases could be revisited. Since then, thousands have been living in the INS version of purgatory.

The Central Americans were dealt several setbacks last year, including their inclusion under the tough new immigration law that places harsh restrictions on applicants seeking legal residency.

Then, this November, Republicans in Congress brokered a controversial deal that granted amnesty to Cubans and Nicaraguans – who came here fleeing communism – but ignored the plight of other Central Americans fleeing governments propped up by U.S. dollars. At the time he signed the bill, President Clinton suggested that federal officials would move quickly to help restore equity, but the only concession Salvadorans and Guatemalans received was a ruling that their deportation cases be considered under the earlier, less-stringent citizenship rules.

Reno's latest move is getting positive but cautious reaction from immigrant-rights advocates. “It's a good thing,” says Dan Kesselbrenner, co-counsel for the initial class-action suit and now director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “It allows immigrants to make their case in a less formal setting, before an asylum office.”

However, Kesselbrenner and other activists say the real test will come when Reno's office announces the specific steps immigrants will have to follow and the guidelines agents will use toward granting legal residency. “We are worried that people who are eligible may be ruled out if the guidelines aren't clear,” Kesselbrenner says.

Those fears are well founded, according to Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. Kelley accused the Clinton administration of failing to deliver on the president's promise of last November: “If the White House had wanted to, it could have told the attorney general, 'Make this as easy as possible for these people.' But that's not what Clinton did. Instead, the attorney general just slammed the door on us.”

Aside from the moratorium on hearings, Reno's office is keeping mum on when it will finally issue new rules for Central American refugees. Privately, however, DOJ officials in Washington acknowledge they are scrambling to come up with a plan and have been meeting weekly to come up with a final proposal.

At the same time, immigrant-rights groups in Los Angeles are scheduled to meet with INS officials this week to discuss concerns over when Central American immigrants will finally be able to put this painful chapter behind them.

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