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Thousands of Latin American immigrants among Katrina's victims

(5 September 2005) IPS -- THOUSANDS of Latin American immigrants are among those left homeless by Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States, and at least three have died. But although governments and social organisations from the region have offered help, they have run into restrictions set by Washington.

Consular authorities from Latin American countries estimate that around 300,000 people from Mexico, Central America and several South American nations live in the area affected by last week's hurricane and the consequent flooding, which left millions of people with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"It is very difficult for us to find and identify the Latin American victims, and to reach them with assistance. Furthermore, the US State Department has so far placed restrictions on the efforts that we could make," Honduras' ambassador to the United States, Norman García, told IPS.

According to García, some 140,000 people from Honduras and their descendants were living in the greater New Orleans area alone, one of the hardest-hit areas. Nearly all of them were left homeless and without a job, including the staff of the Honduran consulate in that city.

García lamented that the offers of food and medical aid and logistical support made by governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have been turned down by the US government. "For now, the government in Washington is only allowing monetary donations, through the Red Cross," he said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

It will take years for the Gulf Coast region to recover from the damages wrought by Katrina on Aug. 29, said President George W. Bush. Some estimates put the number of dead at 10,000.

The Mexican government reported that around 100,000 Mexican citizens are among those affected by the hurricane, whose winds and rain devastated a large part of the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Derbez, who said Monday that the deaths of three Mexicans have been reported so far, will visit the Gulf Coast region within the next few days along with other Mexican officials to assess the best way to provide assistance.

Consular authorities from Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and El Salvador have gone to the outskirts of the affected areas, and to storm shelters, while setting up special hot-lines to offer help to those in need.

"But the consulates cannot operate as they would wish in the area, because the State Department is not allowing us to," said Ambassador García. His government sent presidential commissioner René Becerra to work directly with the victims in the United States.

"So far, we have information on 300 Hondurans who have been left homeless, but who are safe. But we don't know anything more than that, nor do we have reports on how many Hondurans might have died, because we have not been allowed access to the lists that the US government is drawing up," the ambassador added.

Washington accepted the aid offered by Mexico, which will send a team of doctors, rescue workers and members of the military to the affected areas, the government of President Vicente Fox announced Monday.

Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Venezuela have also offered assistance, including doctors, medicine, rescue equipment and food, but the US government has not yet responded.

Carlos Avila, an official at the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), told IPS from his offices in Honduras that the regional institution is designing a project for the provision of assistance to Central American victims of the storm.

"In Central America, we have experience from Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, and we know that for the victims, a difficult process of reinsertion into normal life comes after the initial impact, because many have lost everything they had, including their jobs, and young people have been left out of school," he said.

The project, which is still being drafted, is aimed at coordinating with the US government a plan to provide comprehensive support for the victims of the hurricane. "The idea is to find a way for them to be reinserted into society," said Avila.

The BCIE is comprised of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Its associate members are Argentina, China, Colombia, Mexico and Spain.

The regional bank finances and coordinates reconstruction efforts when Central America is hit by natural catastrophes.

Central America indeed has experience in hurricanes. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch left more than 7,000 dead in Honduras and 3,000 in Nicaragua, while causing economic losses of nearly 4.8 billion dollars.

García said Hurricane Katrina has led to "an extraordinary mobilisation of the Latino community." Consulates from several Latin American countries and organisations that work with immigrants have pooled their efforts to identify victims from the region, he explained.

But the challenge is huge, because many of the victims are undocumented migrants and have avoided going to shelters to seek help, said Carlos Gonzáles, Mexico's consul in Houston, Texas, where tens of thousands of storm refugees have fled.

"Undocumented migrants live in a state of terror, and some believe they will be seized and deported," said the official.

According to the last US census, 39.9 million people of Latin American origin or descent -- most of them Mexicans -- live in the United States, a country of 290.8 million people. Of those nearly 40 million, around five million are living in the country without legal documents.

Source: Inter Press Service

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