- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

Colombian President-elect Alvaro Uribe says he will ask the United States for legal status in this country for Colombian citizens, tens of thousands of whom are living here illegally to escape terrorism in their homeland.

Following up on promises he made before his landslide election victory in May, Mr. Uribe told reporters in Washington this week that he would ask the Bush administration to grant temporary protection status (TPS) to Colombians seeking refuge in the United States.

"I've listened to the Colombians who live widely in the United States, and in the opportune moment, without mixing it with other points of the agenda, we'll propose TPS in an exclusive manner," Mr. Uribe told reporters yesterday.

Mr. Uribe, who takes office in August, finished a three-day visit to Washington yesterday after meeting with officials of the Bush administration, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He is seeking more help in ending Colombia's 38-year civil war, which kills roughly 3,500 people a year.

He also promised that his country would put more of its own resources toward the "Colombia problem," which "has the capacity to destabilize all the continent."

But while the Bush administration and Mr. Uribe whom some Colombians jokingly call Alvaro W. Bush seem to see eye to eye in the war on terrorism, the question of protecting Colombians in the United States is more problematic.

Mr. Uribe's request is "under consideration," said Sylvia Bazala of the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. It has also gained the support of a small number of lawmakers.

Nearly 226,000 Colombians left their country on tourist visas in 2000 and stayed abroad, many in the United States.

Proponents of TPS criticize the United States for sending refugees home to face the violence it has spent almost $2 billion dollars in recent years to stop. Colombia is the third-largest U.S. aid recipient behind Israel and Egypt.

Many Colombians living here are well-educated professionals who send money back to family and friends in South America, which TPS proponents say brings stability to communities where poor youths are otherwise paid to join the guerrillas.

Outgoing Colombian President Andres Pastrana wrote letters to both the Bush administration and President Clinton seeking protection for illegal Colombian refugees, to little effect. Analysts say anti-immigration sentiment in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks has further deflated interest.

Others believe it is the drug war itself that makes lawmakers reluctant to grant special status to Colombian refugees.

"Somehow, somewhere, someone believes that granting TPS support somehow undermines what the U.S. is doing in Colombia which is illogical," said Hiram Ruiz, senior policy analyst for U.S. Committee for Refugees.

Some Colombian Americans, unconvinced by Mr. Pastrana's lack of results with TPS, are waiting for Mr. Uribe to prove the issue is a priority for him.

"He has supported the TPS and done it with some emphasis," said Jairo Sandoval Franky of the National Association of Colombian-American Organizations. "But so far he's done it with only words."

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