Federal officials in Houston, Texas, are making efforts to send home 250 Salvadoran prisoners who have been stranded there for as long as six months in an immigration detention center. Some of the detainees are convicted criminals and some are simply undocumented immigrants, but most of them now say they just want to go home before Christmas.
The Salvadoran immigrants came to the United States seeking work or, in some cases, easy money through criminal activity. Now, after spending months in prison, most would rather go back to their homeland. But bad weather in recent weeks has delayed the regular flights operated by the U.S. Marshals service from Houston to San Salvador. There have also been bureaucratic delays in El Salvador, where officials have been reluctant to accept large numbers of returning immigrants who have criminal records.
Luisa Aquino of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, known as INS, spoke to VOA by phone from her office in Houston. "We are working with the consulate to get them home," she said. "Many of them have expressed that they simply want to go home before the holidays and we are trying to do everything we can to get them there."
Earlier this week, some of the prisoners threatened to go on a hunger strike, but efforts by the INS to speed their return have calmed them. Luisa Aquino says the majority of the prisoners are illegal aliens who were convicted of crimes in the southern United States. "A lot of them have come to us from different jails around the state and other areas," she said. "Based on the fact that a lot of them have already served their sentence and they are still in violation of immigration laws and because of their conviction it puts them into the category of deportable alien."
She said the Salvadoran consulate in Houston has helped clear the way so that all the detainees can be sent back in the coming few weeks. The Salvadoran government has limited the number of deportees it can accept to 60 a week.
Once they arrive in El Salvador, the returning immigrants are obligated to enter a reorientation program called "Bienvenidos a Casa," Spanish for "Welcome Home." The program, funded by both the government and the Catholic Church in El Salvador, offers the deportees psychological counseling, employment advice and medical attention.
Returning immigrants have become a burden for the Salvadoran government because the poor Central American country has few employment opportunities to offer them. Those who have criminal records in the United States sometimes represent a problem for law enforcement in El Salvador. Authorities say deportees who were once part of youth gangs in U.S. cities have started similar gangs in El Salvador. The small Central American nation is still trying to overcome the effects of a decade-long civil war that ended in 1992. Its economy has also been hurt by the drop in worldwide prices for its principal exportcoffeeand by the effects of a series of earthquakes in early 2001.