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A time for congressional compassion to immigrants

Undocumented immigrants have been deported at record rates in recent months largely because of the get-tough immigration law passed last year.

By June 30, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had reported some 76,000 deportations for the previous nine months, an increase of more than 7,000 over the number deported in the entire preceding year.

More than 32,200 people were deported from April through June alone -- and those numbers don’t include the more than 57,000 aliens who left the country without being formally deported.

Under the 1996 immigration law, foreigners arriving at U.S. airports and other ports of entry without proper documents are refused entry into the country “unless there is a credible asylum claim or a claim to permanent resident status.”

This law, which took effect April 1 of this year, significantly raised the standards undocumented immigrants have to meet in order to apply for asylum. As a result, many have complained that people suffering persecution in foreign countries are being prevented from seeking refuge in the United States.

The law was inspired largely by heated political rhetoric depicting poor immigrants and refugees as freeloaders and a serious drag on the economy.

One of the few voices countering that image has been the Catholic church. Clergy and laity alike continue to speak up on behalf of immigrants.

The church’s social message of compassion and its historical concern for immigrants and refugees, expressed in coalition with other churches and concerned people, seems to be having some effect.

At the end of September, Democrats secured a small temporary victory for undocumented immigrants: a three-week extension of a program that allows them to secure green cards -- documents that confer legal status -- in the United States rather than at U.S. consulates in their country of origin. When the new rules go into effect, nullifying that program, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants will have to leave the United States to get their green cards, and are likely to encounter serious obstacles to getting back in.

Once they leave, those who have been in the United States illegally for more than six months could be barred from returning for three years, and those here illegally for more than a year could be prevented from returning for 10 years.

What is needed is not a temporary extension of the program but a permanent one. The new rules will cause anguish for tens of thousands of immigrants, many of them employees whose skills are critical to American business and who have families in this country.

“A three-week extension is not really that helpful,” House minority leader Richard Gephardt said at a news conference. “Families are going to be torn apart if they have to make this decision. This is immoral. It is wrong.”

Gephardt said the Democrats hoped to get enough Republican support to pass a permanent extension of Section 245(i) of the Immigration Act.

That regulation, written by Congress in 1994, allows immigrants who are eligible for a green card, either because they are directly related to a legal resident or are sponsored by an employer, to legalize their status without leaving the country by paying a $1,000 penalty. In effect, they are permitted to remain in the country while completing their application process for a green card if they pay the fine.

Immigration lawyers said the lapsing of 245(i) would close the legal door on undocumented immigrants and lead many to try to remain in the country illegally.

The Senate has already agreed to a permanent extension of the 1994 rules that would allow immigrants to remain in the United States while applying for permanent resident status, but Republicans in the House are opposed.

The Clinton administration has asked Congress to extend 245(i).

Gephardt said that thousands of people eligible for permanent residency in the United States “are having to choose whether to leave the country or suffer the provisions the Republicans are trying to put in place. Should this provision expire,” he said, “individuals all across the country could needlessly have their lives disrupted.”

The time is right to renew our spirit of compassion. The House needs to hear from Catholics and others from across the nation urging a permanent extension to Section 245(i) of the Immigration Act.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 1997