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New Immigration Policy Generates Confusion, Another Legal ChallengeBy William Branigin and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 2, 1997; Page A01
As major provisions of a new immigration law took effect yesterday, advocacy groups opened a broad-gauge legal challenge to the measure and immigrants voiced a growing sense of alarm about its impact.
Yesterday, the groups sought to block the law's procedures for dealing with asylum-seekers as part of what they say will be a prolonged legal attack aimed at overturning the law's tougher elements.
The suit, accompanied by dire warnings that the new law already is sending refugees back to face "possible death and persecution" in their homelands, was the second filed in less than a week aimed at delaying the enforcement of certain provisions or rolling back new procedures. So far, neither suit has succeeded in blocking provisions of the law.
The last-minute legal action has served to increase confusion among immigrants. Although the Immigration and Naturalization Service has attempted to quash rumors of mass deportations and other feared effects, signs of continued turmoil were evident yesterday at immigrant centers in the District.
"I've heard so much about this law that I don't understand anything," said Ana Lilia, 30, a nanny from Mexico who lives in Adams-Morgan and who has applied to become a permanent resident. "I think this law should be for people who come here to do ill, to take advantage, not for those of us who come here to work and get ahead," she said.
Passed last September, the law strengthens immigration enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border and cracks down on illegal aliens, who number about 5 million. Much of it went into force immediately after it was signed into law, but portions have needed new regulations by the INS before they could be implemented.
For most of those who have entered the country illegally and remained underground, the new law means little. But those who are trying to legalize their status, or who have resided here for years under special rules for Central American refugees, eventually may be forced to leave under the new law.
Maria Caballero, a legal immigrant from El Salvador who operates a small house-cleaning service in the District, said she was worried about the new law's impact on many of her fellow Salvadorans. She cited a provision that requires illegal immigrants to leave the United States by Sept. 30 or risk being barred from returning for three years.
"They say people have only six months to arrange their situation, and then they have to leave. It seems like such a crude thing to do," said Caballero, who has lived in the United States for 16 years. "People come here with so many dreams. Why don't they deserve a second chance?"
At the Casa Maryland, a nonprofit center in Langley Park that offers job placement and legal advice to Latinos, staff lawyer Maria Reff said many of her clients are terrified that they will now be deported. And at Ayuda Inc., a legal aid clinic in Adams-Morgan, Anya Sykes, an immigration lawyer, said her office was swamped with calls.
"It's been totally crazy," Sykes said. "Mothers have called asking if their U.S. citizen children will be deported if they don't have passports. Doctors have called asking how a bed-ridden patient can apply to become a citizen. One lady begged me to come with her to an immigration hearing, because she was afraid she would be grabbed and deported on the spot."
Immigration officials have tried to assure the public there will be no massive deportations as a result of the new law. However, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants face the prospect of eventually having to leave the country under its provisions. The new law also makes it easier to deport an illegal immigrant, as well as to prevent a foreigner from entering the country with fake documents.
According to lawyers and immigration experts, the initial lawsuits herald a broader legal assault on the new law in the months ahead, with challenges anticipated by civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups to a variety of the measure's provisions, including those that stiffen penalties on people who overstay visas, impose a time limit for filing political asylum applications and limit judicial review.
Immigration lawyers and immigrants' rights groups charge that many provisions deal too harshly with people who are trying to legalize their status here or are fleeing persecution in their homelands.
"The law takes aim at the right problem, illegal immigration, but this scattershot approach takes out a lot of innocent bystanders," said Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum.
Advocates of lower immigration levels, on the other hand, argue that the lawsuits are an effort by groups representing illegal immigrants to win in the courts a battle they lost in Congress. They say these groups are trying to undermine provisions aimed at dismantling a system that has allowed illegal immigrants to enter the United States by the millions over the years and stay with impunity. That system, they note, has benefited immigration lawyers now fighting the law.
"A lot of the provisions that Congress passed are in fact responses to the aggressive moves by the immigration bar over the years to exploit every loophole, every crack and every nook and cranny of the immigration law to obstruct effective enforcement of it," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
The opening shot in the assault on the law was a suit filed last week in U.S. district court here seeking to delay enforcement of provisions that were due to take effect April 1. In a confusing decision, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan Monday ordered a four-day postponement of the new INS regulations, but not the statutory provisions of the law itself. Citing the prospect of chaos at ports of entry, the Justice Department filed an late-night emergency appeal, and the ruling was overturned early yesterday by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Later yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which had represented four immigration advocacy groups in seeking the delay, filed another suit challenging the law's procedures for dealing with foreigners who arrive with false or no documents and claim political asylum.
The groups asked Judge Sullivan to order immigration officials to provide foreigners entering the country with clearer and more immediate information about their rights to seek political asylum.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday.
Effective April 1, immigrants who are in the United States illegally must obtain a work permit or visa by Sept. 30 or have applied for permanent residency, political asylum or relief from deportation. Otherwise, if caught, they must leave the country and reapply for admission.
Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights
American Immigration Lawyers Association
IMPACT OF THE NEW IMMIGRATION LAW
Sources: Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, American Bar Association
How the new law and foreign policy changes
will affect Central American war refugees.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company