LOS ANGELES — With a midnight deadline looming to apply for a visa without leaving the country, thousands of illegal immigrants spent Monday standing in line at Immigration and Naturalization Service offices throughout the state.
In downtown Los Angeles, more than 2,000 applicants were lined up outside the federal building when it opened at 6 a.m., many having camped out all night.
“It’s huge. So big,” said Sharon A. Gavin, director of public affairs for the INS in Los Angeles, as she surveyed the crowd.
The line diminished by midmorning as agents weeded out people who just wanted to hand in forms or who didn’t need to be there first. But the office would stay open until midnight.
In San Francisco, newspapers, empty soda bottles and fast food bags were strewn around the INS building as people holding blankets and packets of documents stood in lines snaking around a block.
For Yvette Garcia and her husband, Juan, the wait began at 11 p.m. Sunday, but by noon Monday, they were almost finished – Juan was just waiting to receive his employment authorization card.
“It was hard, but it was worth it,” said Yvette Garcia, who is jointly sponsoring Juan. “It was an experience. I don’t know how the homeless do it.”
The Legal Immigration and Family Equity (LIFE) 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, 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.
Applications must be postmarked or delivered to the INS by midnight Monday.
Marriage to a U.S. citizen is often the easiest way to apply for a visa, and the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s office was doing a brisk business in marriage licenses Monday morning.
At the district office in heavily Latino East Los Angeles, officials had sold more than 260 marriage licenses by noon – about 10 times as many as in a typical day, said Maria D. Lopez, an office supervisor.
For weeks couples have been showing up asking, ”’Please, please, can you marry us?”’ Lopez said.
“We had an abundance this morning,” she said.
Many of the marriage licenses, which cost $66.75 each, are sold to notary publics who are authorized to perform marriages. Some notary publics have been showing up once or twice a day recently to restock, Lopez said.
But for one couple waiting outside the San Diego INS office Monday, marriage wasn’t the answer.
Po Chuy Yee Ma, 35, and Yue Ying Lei, 26, got married two months ago, but they said it wasn’t because Yue needs a green card.
In fact marriage was why the couple was so late in filing with the INS.
“We didn’t think about this. We were so busy planning our wedding that we didn’t see the news,” Po said.
Illegal immigrants across the country turned out in extraordinary numbers and stood in line for hours, trying to beat Monday’s deadline for applying for legal residency under a new federal law.
In Albuquerque, N.M., they camped overnight outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service office. In Charlotte, N.C., parents hoisted infants in their arms in a line that snaked around a building.
In Philadelphia, they marched into a truck, where application photos were taken assembly-line style. And in New York, about 500 people lined up to file applications.
“I need papers,” said Abdoulaye Diallo, a taxi driver who arrived in New York in 1995 from Guinea in West Africa. “I didn’t hear before. I found out today from TV.”
The Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act, which took effect in December, will allow approximately 640,000 illegal immigrants to seek green cards without first returning to their home countries. That is significant because most illegal immigrants who leave the United States are barred from re-entering for up to 10 years.
To apply, an immigrant must be sponsored by an employer or by a close relative who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
Anticipating the rush of immigrants, INS offices from Albany, N.Y., to Yakima, Wash., extended their hours until midnight.
Among the hundreds of people in lines wrapped around the Detroit office was Rebecca Nava, who traveled 140 miles from Grand Rapids, Mich., seeking legal status for her husband, a Mexican citizen.
“It seems like everybody that comes over here doesn’t want to go back because life (in Mexico) is so difficult,” she said.
For immigrants without a sponsor, marriage to a U.S. citizen can be the fastest route to legal status. One byproduct of the new federal law was a rush to the altar in cities with high immigrant populations.
Paula Pagan, a wedding clerk in New York, said she performed 255 ceremonies last Friday alone and expected a lot more Monday.
Danny Ang from Malaysia, waiting in the INS line nearby, said he was frustrated that he couldn’t take that route to citizenship. “I’m a gay guy so I can’t get married just for the paper,” Ang said. “I don’t even know if I have the right forms now. Maybe I should just give it up.”
INS spokeswoman Elaine Komis said the agency would not know for several weeks how many immigrants filed applications. But she said petitions from relatives hoping to sponsor immigrants suggest the applications are on a record pace. The prior record dates to 1998, just before the deadline for a similar law.
Although many applicants admitted to procrastination, some said it simply took time and money to get their papers in order.
Henry Harrison, was waiting in Miami with his wife, Kimberly. They said they had known about the deadline since November but needed time to raise the $1,000 application fee and $455 in additional costs.
“There are a lot of people who want to lead good lives and they shouldn’t be deprived of that chance,” Kimberly Harrison said.
Mario Russell, director of immigrant services for Catholic Charities in New York, said the agency counseled hundreds of applicants, extending the hours of its immigration hot line and adding eight new languages, including Polish, Turkish and Serbo-Croatian.
“We expanded our staff, we expanded our hours, and we’ve been working nonstop on this for four months,” Russell said. “Everybody’s pretty tired.”
In Boston, the INS had accepted about 10 times the average daily number of applications by noon Monday.
Richmond Akesseh said he came to Boston from Ghana illegally about a year ago. “Even when I was little, I wanted to come and make a family here,” he said. “I want to go to school and finish my courses.”
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