Election Section

Illegal immigrants trying to beat deadline

The Associated Press
Saturday April 28, 2001

WASHINGTON — Illegal immigrants are flocking to immigration offices to apply for visas as a Monday deadline approaches. 

Some Immigration and Naturalization Service centers are extending hours Saturday and Monday, while immigrant advocacy groups and attorneys are working late to help last-minute filers with their applications. 

“We’re getting long lines at the district offices,” said Elaine Komas, an INS spokeswoman. “We’re getting a tremendous increase in the volume of calls.” 

She said that in March the agency received the largest number of visa applications ever for a one-month period. Over a three-month period the agency has handled more than a million calls per month, a 33 percent increase over the typical month. 

Vanna Slaughter, executive director of Dallas Catholic Charities, said her organization has been inundated with people seeking immigration counseling services. 

“We have handled around 500 people since the first of the year,” she said. “That’s unheard of. We usually do that by end of the year.” 

Mario Ramos, an immigration lawyer in Nashville, Tenn., said some immigrants just learned about the deadline and realized they need to act quickly. 

“They have this really desperate sound in their voice,” he said. 

Members of Congress urged President Bush to issue an executive order extending the deadline, but the White House said Friday changing the law required an act of Congress. Spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House was reviewing the issue. 

“We are working through a high-level working group with Mexico on migration issues such as this and the president previously has made it clear that he supports reuniting families that have been separated,” McClellan said. 

The Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act that took effect in December allows an estimated 640,000 illegal immigrants to apply for visas without first returning to their home countries and applying from there. That is significant because most illegal immigrants are barred from re-entering the United States once they leave. 

A visa allows an immigrant to stay in the country and reserves a place for the immigrant to later apply for a green card, which signifies permanent legal residency. 

To apply for a visa, an immigrant must be sponsored and have a close relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Then the immigrant must pay $225 in application and fingerprinting fees and a $1,000 fine for entering the country illegally. 

Marisol, 24, an illegal immigrant who has lived in Washington for eight years and did not want to give her last name, was among those seeking an application at the INS office in Arlington, Va., on Thursday. 

“This is going to give us the opportunity to be residents here and not have to leave our children,” she said as she held her squirming toddler. 

Applications must be postmarked or delivered to the INS by midnight Monday. Those who miss the deadline risk arrest unless they return to their home country and apply. Many of those who return home will have to wait 10 years before they will be allowed back into the United States. 

Since its inception, the visa application law has touched off a frenzy in the immigrant community. Initially some believed the law was a general amnesty, leading them to be victimized by profiteers. 

The rules governing who may sponsor whom are complex. In certain cases, relatives may sponsor applicants; in some cases employers may do so — but only after proving a job is legitimate and there is a shortage of American workers to fill it. 

Marriage to a U.S. citizen is often the easiest route. Advocates and attorneys say they have been advising immigrants in relationships to get married or move up wedding dates so they can take advantage of the law. As a result, requests for marriage licenses have surged in many areas of the country. 

In Arlington, Circuit Court deputy clerk Aida Duncan said her office has issued 2,000 marriage licenses since January, about double compared to the same period last year. 

The INS has issued warnings that marriage fraud — marrying just to get a green card — carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $260,000 fine. 


On the Net: 

Immigration and Naturalization Service LIFE Act: http://www.ins.usdoj.gov/graphics/services/residency/LIFE.htm