Strict new U.S. law frightens illegal aliens No mass deportations planned, officials say

April 01, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

A tough new immigration law that takes effect today requires Maryland's 44,000 illegal immigrants to become legal within six months -- or risk being banned from the United States for at least three years.

But the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act makes it more difficult for illegal immigrants to become legal.

Opponents of the law won a small victory yesterday when U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan handed down a decision in Washington that postpones until Saturday implementation of several regulations under the new law.

After yesterday's ruling, attorneys for groups opposed to the law said that they are prepared to file a substantive challenge to the regulations. The court set a hearing for April 8 to hear that complaint.

In anticipation of the new law, many immigrants have taken steps to try to avoid deportation.

"Many people have gotten married because of the new law," said Jermin Laviera, who works at the Hispanic Apostolate in Baltimore's Upper Fells Point community. "They were afraid of being deported. We told them that marriage was no guarantee they would be able to stay in the United States, but they went to the courthouse anyway."

According to Laviera, staff workers at the Apostolate directed about 20 couples to Baltimore City Circuit Court last week. A deputy clerk at the downtown courthouse said 30 to 40 foreigners were married there during the past week.

Officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Baltimore said that illegal immigrants hoping to remain in the United States should not take such drastic measures.

"There's been a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about this, but the bottom line is that marriage does not automatically ,, change an immigrant's status," said John Shallman, an INS spokesman. "There's nothing someone must do or can do today to change their status."

He was quick to add that the department has no plans to begin mass deportations, as many had feared. Instead, the INS is focusing its efforts on foreigners who have committed crimes.

"It's going to be business as usual for the INS in Baltimore," Shallman said. "We will continue to focus on the removal of criminal aliens and on employer sanctions against companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants."

If the 600-page measure enacted by Congress last year is strictly enforced nationwide, it will be much tougher for illegal residents to remain in or enter the United States.

The new law allows officials to immediately deport people who enter the country without required documents. It also makes it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to fight deportation and bars immigrants who remain in the United States with expired visas, and then leave, from returning for three to 10 years.

Most at risk under the law are visitors or workers with expired visas, political asylum seekers, Central American war refugees and people who crossed the border without documents.

The right of federal courts to review deportation and exclusion decisions will be sharply reduced. Illegal immigrants who are ordered deported will have to prove to an immigration judge that they have lived in the United States for at least 10 years, and that returning to their native country would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens or legal residents.

In the past, a sympathetic judge could suspend the deportation of undocumented immigrants if they were able to prove they had been living in the United States for at least seven years.

Supporters of the measure say the tougher restrictions should be applied to every undocumented immigrant -- even those who work hard and pay taxes -- to reverse the flow of illegal immigrants, which now number about 5 million nationwide, and to make up for years of judicial leniency.

"This is an important first step in regaining control of illegal immigration," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "The message Congress is trying to send is that illegal immigration is not something the United States is going to continue to wink at.

"If we're going to have control over our borders, the law has to have teeth. Those people who complain about the harshness of the new immigration law are often the same people who benefited from the laxity in previous provisions."

Even if an immigrant qualifies for a hardship waiver he or she may not get one. Congress has placed a limit on the number of reprieves that can be granted each year. That limit, 4,000 a year, has already been reached.

Critics of the law fear it will force people who are eligible to become legal permanent residents to stay out of the country for years.

"While it makes sense to curtail illegal immigration, it makes no sense to push underground those who can legalize their status," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group based in Washington.

"Under this law, people who are eligible to become legal residents may be forced to stay out of the country for years before being let back in, so the incentive is to not come forward if you miss the deadline."

Foes argue that immigrants and the INS have not been given enough time to get ready for the sweeping policy changes. The Justice Department published regulations to implement the law in the Federal Register on March 6.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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