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LOST IN AMERICA // Families fear deportations

When Cynthia Norori got a dreaded "bag and baggage" letter from immigration authorities late last year telling her to leave the country or face deportation, she naively assumed it was just a big mistake.

Norori, 24, had lived with the threat of deportation ever since she came to Miami from Nicaragua almost seven years earlier. But after marrying an American and giving birth to three American children, she figured being sent home wasn't something she needed to worry about any more.

So, she went to the Miami offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to straighten things out.

Naomi, 6, Chabeli, 4, and Jesus, 2, went with her. So did Benigno Soriano, her Cuban-American husband.

But a few tear-filled hours later, they would find their lives spinning helplessly out of control _ children without a mother and a family torn apart.

"We went in good faith," Soriano, 45, said. "There's no logic to what they have done to us. Don't even try to look for it."

What happened to the Norori-Soriano family, sent shock waves through South Florida's large Nicaraguan immigrant community.

As a result of an immigration law passed last year by Congress, as many as 60,000 Nicaraguan exiles who fled war and economic chaos in their country in the 1980s, face a similar fate.

The war ended almost seven years ago and for the first time there is a semblance of democracy in Nicaragua. Now Washington says it's time the Nicaraguans went home.

With the April 1 deadline for implementing the new law approaching, exile leaders are appealing to the Clinton administration for clemency.

Uprooting so many people after such a long time in the United States would disrupt thousands of innocent lives and cause untold damage to the economies of both South Florida and Nicaragua, the exiles say.

"It's a human tragedy. They have paid their taxes, they have been good citizens, they have had American kids," said Roberto Arguello, a prominent Nicaraguan-American banker and exile leader. "These bureaucrats are playing games with the suffering of thousands of people."

Local politicians, including the mayors of Miami and Dade County, as well as local members of Congress have rallied to the defense of the Nicaraguans.

In a March 14 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Florida Sen. Bob Graham wrote: "A move to deport these hard working individuals could be disastrous for them, their families and their communities."

As a "by-product" of a war in which the United States was directly involved, the exiles say it's the least they deserve. Among those affected by the new law are members of the Nicaraguan "Contra" Resistance, the guerrilla army financed by the United States, which fought the leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s.

Over the years many Nicaraguans have become settled in South Florida, owning their own homes and businesses and putting their children through school.

But in many cases their immigration status was never settled. While some were able to prove persecution back home and were granted U.S. citizenship, others were left in a legal limbo. Typically, they were denied political asylum but were granted annual work permits as an interim measure.

Immigration experts say as many as 200,000 Nicaraguans live in the Miami area, the second-largest Hispanic group after Cubans. Of those about half have resident status or are American citizens.

For the rest, the great hope has been that over time their presence in the United States would become an established fact.

Despite having their appeals for asylum rejected, few Nicaraguans actually were deported until two years ago when the pace suddenly picked up. Since then, several hundred people have been deported and many more are receiving "bag and baggage" letters. The INS letters instruct people who have lost immigration cases to pack their suitcases and turn themselves in for deportation.

Many who were unable to settle their immigration status placed their faith in a statute that allows immigrants facing deportation to reopen their cases if they have lived in the United States for more than seven years. Deportation could be halted, and permanent residence granted, if they were able to show that they were of good moral character, had committed no crimes and could prove that deportation would cause extreme hardship to them or their family.

Some 20,000 Nicaraguans have so far been able to benefit from this statute.

But hopes were dashed for tens of thousands of others last month by a ruling that threatens to accelerate the pace of expulsion. The Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that immigrants who were presented with deportation orders before the seventh anniversary of their arrival in the United States are no longer eligible to have their cases reconsidered.

"It's a Draconian and unfair law, illogical and ignominious," said Ana Navarro, Miami spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The new law "has changed the rules of the game half way through play."

According to the lawyers association, there are 60,000 Nicaraguans in the Miami INS district deportation docket, two-thirds of whom would have qualified for suspension of deportation.

The effect of the law both on South Florida and Nicaragua, would be "disastrous," Navarro said.

The second poorest country in the hemisphere and with a 50 percent unemployment rate, Nicaragua is ill-equiped to deal with thousands of returning deportees.

Money sent home by Nicaraguan families in the United States, estimated at more than $200-million a year, is one of the most important sources of income for the country.

"This will wreak havoc on the country and seriously endanger the stability of the country," Navarro said.

Other community leaders say two decades of U.S. meddling in their country's affairs make Nicaraguans deserving of special treatment.

For decades, the United States propped up Nicaragua's corrupt Somoza dynasty. Then in the 1980s, fearing a spread of communism in Central America, the Reagan administration sought to topple the Sandinistas by funneling money and weapons to the Contras.

The war left 50,000 dead, and a country in economic ruins.

"It was our blood, but it was the gringos war too," said Nora Britton, who last month led an exile delegation to the White House. "We were a by-product of that war," she said, refering to the 150,000 Nicaraguan refugees who came to the United States seeking safe haven.

With time running out, Britton said, some families facing deportation are going into hiding for fear of rumored INS raids after April 1.

Nicaraguans on the run describe their existence as "Operation Armadillo," after the nocturnal creature that evades its predators by burrowing underground.

Luis Vindell moved out of his home with a wife and 20-month-old baby daughter soon after receiving a bag and baggage letter from INS.

A wounded Contra veteran, he moved to a mobile home park, ironically close by the Miami INS district office. "It's best to keep the enemy in your sight," he joked, reviving memories of his U.S. military training.

But in his situation there's little else to laugh about.

Vindell, 34, is angry at how he has been treated. "The Americans were our best allies and now they have turned their backs on us," he said.

"I hope the authorities recognize one day who we were and what we fought for. We were struggling not just for Nicaragua, but for the freedom of a continent. The senores at the National Security Council know that well."

Vindell was a late arrival in Miami, only getting here in December 1991, more than a year after the war was over in Nicaragua. He decided to come to the United States after visiting his home town in Nicaragua and coming to the conclusion it wasn't safe.

"My friends advised me to leave. The Sandinistas were killing people off systematically one by one."

Today, now almost seven years after the war ended, experts say that security in Nicaragua is much improved. But some former Contras may still have reason to fear for their lives. Nicaragua's army and military intelligence is still controlled by the Sandinistas.

According to a international observers, more than 700 former Contra combatents have been killed in Nicaragua since 1990.

"There is still no effective rule of law for those who live deepest in the mountains," said Timothy Brown, who served in Central America in the 1980s as the senior U.S. liaison with the Contras. After visiting Nicaragua earlier this month to assess security conditions he concluded that former Contras from those high-risk areas "should in the current circumstances probably be granted political asylum."

Arguello, the Nicaraguan-American banker, said the Nicaraguans are victims of a series of contradictions in U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

During the war, the Reagan administration was unwilling to grant political asylum to Nicaraguans, fearing a flood of refugees would undermine opposition to the Sandinistas.

"They were concerned that there would be no-one left to fight the war," he said.

"That's absolutely nonsense," said Elliott Abrams, a former senior Reagan administration official at the State Department, who was deeply involved in the Contra war effort.

"The law required that in order to get political asylum you had to show you were the direct target of persecution. The Nicaraguans couldn't make that case," he said.

"It wasn't enough to say, "Jeez this is a rotten country, there's no work and you could get shot.' "

Abrams, who was later disgraced over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress, is now involved in research at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

He does agree, however, that there is now a problem.

While the immigration status of the Nicaraguans should perhaps be regularized on humanitarian grounds, putting them at the front of the line would be unfair to others.

"I could probably find you 40,000 other people who have been waiting years and years having played precisely by the rules," he said.

"That's the problem. Fortunately for me I don't have to solve it."

This week, in an attempt to quell exile fears, the Clinton administration said there will be no mass deportations.

But officials say the administration's hands are tied by a Congress that wants immigration rules tightened, not relaxed. If the door is opened to the Nicaraguans, it might also set a precedent for another 250,000 war refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala scattered across the country.

"Our goal must be to enforce the law passed by the Congress," said Eric Rubin, assistant White House press secretary for foreign affairs. "At the same time however, we need to do it in a way that is mindful of the human dimension and that minimizes hardship on affected communities."

That's not good enough, say exile leaders who call the administration's offer a policy of deportation "in slow motion."

For many, like Cynthia Norori, it's already too late. INS said her case was thoroughly reviewed, but it doubted much of her story and said her marriage in October to Soriano was one of convenience.

In November, as her three small children from previous unions watched and wept, Norori was handcuffed and taken away, leaving the children in her husband's care.

After a painful two months, during which Norori was kept behind bars at an INS detention facility on the outskirts of Miami, she was finally put on a plane in January and flown back to Nicaragua.

All over Miami, Nicaraguans are asking, who's next?