Couples flock to court altar as deadline nears

Marriage to citizen by Monday can spare immigrants illegal status

April 28, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Thanks to a new federal immigration law, Debbie Cooke was marrying up a storm yesterday.

By noon, the manager of the Prince George's County Circuit Court clerk's office had pronounced 32 couples husband and wife. When another pair showed up at 12:05 p.m., five minutes late, she allowed an exception and made it 33.

Cooke's matrimonial marathon was the result of the Legal Immigrant Family Equity Act, which set an April 30 deadline for illegal immigrants to seek permanent residency. The catch is that they have to be married to a U.S. citizen or legal resident.

The looming deadline brought a steady stream of couples to the court clerks' offices in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Maryland's biggest magnets for immigration.

Like other high-immigration jurisdictions around the country, the Washington suburban counties are expecting the rush to continue Monday, the last day for undocumented aliens to apply for an amnesty Congress granted in December to spouses of legal residents.

Elaine Komis, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, said that as long as the two people are serious and in love, the INS encourages the unions. "However, if they marry just to obtain the immigration benefit, that is marriage fraud," Komis said. "And there are serious penalties."

The law appeared to have little impact in other parts of Maryland. Court officials in the Baltimore area and rural counties reported only slightly increased activity or business as usual.

In Montgomery County, the melting pot of Maryland, the rush to the courthouse has continued unabated since the beginning of the year. Supervisor Geraldine Stark said yesterday that she was not taking any more appointments for wedding ceremonies before Monday's deadline.

"Since January, we've been booked up through April," she said.

Stark said the clerk's office has been performing 20 ceremonies a day in 15-minute blocks. At least 40 percent of the couples have been Hispanic, she said.

The numbers show that the deadline has been having an impact, Stark said. Last month, the office conducted 381 ceremonies, up from 239 in March last year.

The office was still issuing licenses yesterday but was telling people who wanted civil ceremonies that they would have to try another county. In many cases, that meant a trip to Prince George's, Cooke said.

"Will you please thank Montgomery for me?" she quipped after her morning marathon.

Cooke explained that Prince George's does not limit the number of ceremonies and will marry any properly licensed couple who show up between 9 a.m. and noon.

She said the numbers have been growing for most of the week, including 21 ceremonies Wednesday and 29 Thursday. On a Wednesday in more typical times, the office might conduct three, she said.

"I have never seen it like this - ever," she said.

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