Rosalia Fuentes and her retired husband consider themselves fortunate: If it weren't for the $400 their three children living in the United States send them every month, the Guatemalan couple are not sure how they would get by.
"That $400 is what we live on," said Mrs. Fuentes during a phone interview from her home outside Guatemala City. "When we hear how this money could dry up, we all worry."
The dollars the Fuenteses (not their real name) receive are just a crumb from the $2.9 billion pie that an estimated 3 million Central Americans in the US send to their families every year. But that crumb could disappear, since the three Fuentes children in California - one restaurant dishwasher and two gas-plant employees - are illegal immigrants.
When President Clinton meets with Central American presidents at a summit in San Jos, Costa Rica, May 8, he can expect to hear plenty about the family remittance pie. Regional leaders are concerned that a big slice of that pie will no longer be passed to their end of the table as a consequence of new US immigration law.
Toughened legislation that went into effect last month makes deportation of illegal aliens easier and limits migrants' recourse for fighting deportations. US immigration officials have said there will be no mass deportations, but such assurances haven't quelled concerns.
With family remittances from the US rivaling income from such top regional exports as coffee and sugar, regional leaders say any dent in that income could send their economies reeling. Added to that would be the effect of thousands of people returning to countries where unemployment and underemployment can reach 50 percent.
"We've just ended a long civil war, the economy is stuck in a recessionary cycle, and we're laboring to reintegrate more than 3,000 former guerrillas," says Eduardo Mazariegos, policy coordinator for the Central American Foundation for Development in Guatemala City, the capital. "Losing the remittances these Guatemalans send back from the US, or suddenly finding thousands of them here when job prospects are so limited, presents a dark picture."
Criminals come back home
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say deportations will not suddenly multiply, but will increase due to a continuing focus on removing criminal immigrants, legal or illegal. This year the INS expects to complete 93,000 "removals," says Richard Bach, INS executive associate commissioner for policy and planning in Washington. About half will be criminals, he says, in an effort to dent the $1 billion the US spends annually on incarcerating the foreign born. But the focus on criminal deportations is a worry in both Central America and the Caribbean, where Clinton will take part Saturday in a summit of regional leaders in Barbados.
Criminal deportations this year in the Dominican Republic are already up 22 percent over last year, for example. About two-thirds of the deportees were convicted of drug-related crimes. What worries Caribbean officials is that the deportees, many of whom left at a young age and have no family ties there, will simply fall back into the drug trade.
"Before we had to deal with guerrillas trained in the Soviet Union and Cuba, now we're getting drug traffickers trained in the United States," said Dominican Ambassador to the US Bernardo Vega, speaking last weekend at a conference in Miami. Deported criminals pose a growing problem in Central America as well, where a US-style gang culture has been planted by such deportees. For example, El Salvador's violent death rate is now higher than it was during the country's 12-year civil war.
The likely economic impact in the region of increased deportations is difficult to gauge. In most cases, the majority of a country's immigrants in the US are legal, law-abiding residents, so they face no additional problems.
In the case of El Salvador, where family remittances have been one of the pillars holding up the economy since the civil war ended in 1992, more than 1 million immigrants in the US send home $1 billion a year. But one-third of Salvadorans in the US are illegals.
Central Americans say they don't expect the US to guarantee families like the Fuentes that they won't lose their income. But they are hoping for some commitment from Clinton that the US will consider the impact of its laws and work with neighboring countries to soften the blow. "The concern here is that Clinton will use this trip to shake hands and smile, and then talk about issues of interest to the US, like drugs and immigration, without listening to the issues that countries here want to focus on," says Mr. Mazariegos.
US to promise help
But Clinton will acknowledge a US readiness to work with countries when he meets with Caribbean leaders. "We are committed to better notification of countries about deportation of criminals," says Mr. Bach. The US is expected to sign an accord at the Barbados meeting promising "adequate advance notice" of deportations of criminals and help in setting up parole programs.