Immigrants rush to marry during brief break in law

April 30 deadline inspires many couples to make ties legal

April 01, 2001|By Susan Sachs | Susan Sachs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The number of New Yorkers getting married has more than doubled in the last two months, but it is not the sweet promise of spring that has inspired many of the couples. It is the hope of a green card.

A law enacted on Dec. 21 offers some immigrants, including those who are in the country illegally, a brief opportunity to adjust their status if they have a close relative who is a citizen or a legal permanent resident.

Anyone who wants to take advantage of the benefit - and an estimated 700,000 people nationwide could be eligible - must file an application with the Immigration and Naturalization Service by April 30.

The approaching deadline, complicated rules and widespread public misunderstanding about the law have left many immigrant families panicked. And one effect of that panic has been a rush to marry or, at the very least, to contemplate marriage so as to profit from a partner's legal status.

`Do it now'

"I wanted a beautiful dress, a big party, a limousine - everything," said Patricia Gonzaga, a student from Brazil who decided to move up the date of her wedding to her green card-holding fiance because of the deadline. "But everyone said, `You've got to do it now,'" she said. "So we'll have something simple at City Hall, and then later we'll do it the way we want it."

Couples seeking a combination of premarital counseling and immigration advice have been showing up at legal aid groups, immigrant organizations, lawyers' offices and churches for weeks.

"What I'm spending most of my time with right now are those people who are living together or having some kind of romantic interlude but had not really considered marriage," said the Rev. Brian Jordan, who runs the Franciscan Immigration Center in Manhattan.

The number of marriage licenses and civil marriage ceremonies jumped by 125 percent in recent months from the corresponding period in 2000, said Joyce Iturriaga, the executive secretary to the city clerk.

Manhattan led the way, but each borough recorded a comparable sudden increase. So have other cities with large immigrant populations, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

The law that has prompted the boom temporarily reactivates a waiver program that has been offered in the past and is known as 245(i).

The main attraction for immigrants is that they can apply for permanent residence status even if they are in the country illegally. Immigrants who qualify may stay openly in the United States while waiting for a green card, the federal document that signifies permanent residence.

Thousands of people, driven by hope and the mistaken impression that a general amnesty for illegal immigrants was being offered, have flooded legal aid offices in the New York City area since the clock began running on the one-time waiver program, when the law was enacted.

A new state information line offering advice in 10 languages has been getting 400 calls a day, twice the number expected when Gov. George E. Pataki first set it up. He set aside $1 million to help immigrants apply for the waiver.

$1,000 fine

Those applicants who are here illegally still must pay a $1,000 fine and meet a number of requirements, including proof that a relative or employer in the United States will take financial responsibility for them.

American immigration law generally favors the reunification of families, giving preference to the close relatives of someone who is a citizen or has already settled in the country and has permanent resident status.

Normally those relatives may apply only from their native country. In practice, that means that families may remain separated for a long time because the wait for green cards can take from a few years to as many as 20 for other relatives like brothers or sisters.

Julio, an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was afraid to give his last name, said he was planning to marry his girlfriend on Friday and then apply for the waiver. The woman is a U.S. citizen and the couple have a child together, he said.

But he belatedly found out this week that he is married, but to someone else, because the paperwork for a divorce from his first wife was never filed. Without the waiver, Julio said, he will probably do just as he has done for years: stay in New York as an illegal immigrant and try to avoid detection.

Immigration lawyers said they try to warn clients that the new law will not solve every immigration problem and that improper applications can cause more harm than good.

Anyone contemplating a sham marriage risks losing all rights to immigrate if found guilty of trying to defraud the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said Michael Amezquita, executive director of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights in Manhattan. "I know that the INS is going to scrutinize any marriage that takes place after Dec. 21 and before April 30," he said.

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