December 22, 2000

Legislation opens door for people seeking amnesty

By Michael Doyle
The Sacramento Bee

, December 19, 2000— Untold thousands of California's residents can seek once more the immigration amnesty they believe was wrongly denied them, under legislation awaiting President Clinton's signature.

The once-illegal immigrants who've adopted California as their new home are part of a class of about 400,000 people who potentially benefit from the legislation. Roughly half of all these eligible immigrants live in California, according to the attorney representing them.

"(This) resolves most of the ultimate issues, but the courts still have to protect class members from deportation and joblessness pending the start-up of the (late amnesty) application process," Carlos Holgein, an attorney with the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said Monday.

The Los Angeles-based group has represented the immigrants through what one federal appellate judge termed "a long and unhappy history" of overlapping lawsuits.

For many, the new legislation will be good news. But the immigrant advocates and government officials who are still paging through the legislation approved with minimal debate Friday also caution that some will end up disappointed.

To use the so-called "late amnesty" provision, for instance, immigrants must still demonstrate they entered the United States prior to 1982. Almost certainly, many of the 400,000 class-action plaintiffs won't be able to. The American Immigration Lawyers Association, for one, estimates that only about 150,000 of the class-action plaintiffs might come up with the necessary proof.

The late amnesty provision is one of three major immigration measures soon to gain Clinton's signature. Another provision establishes a new visa program to clear up some of the backlog of spouses and children of legal U.S. residents. A third major provision extends for four months a program enabling certain immigrants to pay a $1,000 fine instead of having to leave the country before obtaining permanent U.S. residency.

The newly approved legislation will work like this: Family members of legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens must apply by April 30. By applying, they'll be eligible to pay the $1,000 fine - and avoid a forced return to their home country - whenever their name comes up off the waiting list to obtain their own green cards.

Currently, there's about a five-year backlog for family members of legal permanent residents. An estimated 200,000 people could be eligible. Even those signing up by April 30, however, could still be vulnerable to INS action until they actually survive the waiting list, pay their fine and get their green card.

"They shouldn't have a false sense of security," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

A different section of immigration law covers the late amnesty provisions affecting the roughly 400,000 class-action plaintiffs. This follows up on the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which permitted illegal immigrants who'd been in the United States continuously since at least Jan. 1, 1982, to seek amnesty.

Nearly 2.7 million immigrants obtained amnesty under provisions of the 1986 law. Many others, though, were denied amnesty, including those who'd traveled briefly outside of the United States. Some potential applicants were turned away at the INS front desk, without even filing an application.

"The INS interpreted the law excessively strictly," said Cecilia Munoz, of the National Council of La Raza. "They were telling people they were ineligible, when they weren't."

Lawsuits challenged the denials. Eventually, federal courts ordered the INS to grant work authorizations to those who were part of the class-action suits. This permitted the immigrants to work legally while waiting for final court decisions. It also prompted an unhappy Congress in 1996 to essentially strip federal courts of their jurisdiction.

Now, having second thoughts, Congress has given members of the class-action suits another shot at their amnesty applications. By definition, these are people who've now lived in the United States at least 16 years.

The third immigration provision provides for so-called V-visas. An estimated 500,000 people are thought eligible for these, which will be provided to family members who've been waiting in the green-card backlog for at least three years.


Information About the Immigration Deal

The Immigration Bill approved by Congress on December 15 contains several immigration-related provisions including the partial reinstatement of Section 245(i), which allows eligible people to apply for green cards from within the U.S., rather than leaving the country and possibly being barred from re-entering for up to 10 years.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) provides our readers with these three important things about the partial reinstatement of Section 245(i):

• People must have filed an immigrant petition with the INS or labor certification with the Department of Labor by April 30, 2001;

• They must show they were physically present in the United States on the day the bill is signed by the President.

• We do not know when the President will sign the measure, but we know that he must do so by midnight on December 21, 2000.

What does all this mean?

That people eligible to apply for green cards under Section 245(i) can do so without leaving the country and being separated from their families, communities and employers. However, Section 245(i) does not grant work authorization or provide protection from deportation.

To take advantage of this new opportunity to use Section 245(i), people must be able to prove that they were physically present in the U.S. the day the bill is signed.

We also advise people to discuss their potential eligibility with an immigration attorney. If people do not have an immigration attorney, AILA can refer them to one in their area. Call AILA's Lawyer Referral Service at 800-954-0254.

Return to the Frontpage