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Immigrants uncertain as deadline nears

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Julio Cerna is a clown. An immigrant from Peru, he has spent much of the last decade making American children laugh. He also runs a small video business and works as a disc jockey at a Los Angeles club.

Cerna is one of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who will be forced to leave the United States before Oct. 23 to process green cards in their countries of origin if House Republicans vote down Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials reported twice the usual number of applicants at the Los Angeles offices since Congress passed a three-week extension of 245(i) in late September. The effect of the legislative move could be particularly significant here since 2 million of the nation’s 5 million undocumented immigrants live in California, according to the INS. As of press time, those closely following the issue said they were uncertain when the next congressional vote on a permanent extension would be held.

Panic has begun to set in for some immigrants. One immigration lawyer has his staff working around the clock to help clients who marry U.S. citizens beat the deadline for filing the necessary paperwork.

If the measure allowing people to process the paperwork for green cards in the United States is defeated, Cerna said he will depart for Peru “with my heart in my hand.” Like thousands of other immigrants, he could be barred from re-entry into the United States for up to 10 years because of the passage last year of a law punishing those who have resided here illegally for an extended period of time.

“This is total chaos,” he said. “It’s terrible to be breaking up Latino society like this. My whole family is being split up. And we’ve never received anything from the state, not welfare, not food stamps, not medical. Even when my child was young, I didn’t ask the U.S. government for anything.”

Cerna said he worked in Peru as a TV cameraman and was forced to flee when he received threats after interviewing leaders of the violent Shining Path guerrilla movement. He said he fled Peru without requesting status as a political exile in the United States. On Oct. 3, Cerna was outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, where immigrants had begun forming queues at 5:30 a.m. to adjust their legal status. Because he had done nothing to date to obtain permanent status, he would not be able to complete the green card process before the deadline.

Latino members of Congress and community leaders, who held a press conference on the steps of the Federal Building, described a permanent extension of 245(i) as “pro-family, probusiness and just.”

Elimination of 245(i), according to Moises Escalante, outreach coordinator at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, would cause hardship in family life.

“In most families, two people work. If one is gone, families will become more impoverished. Those who stay will seek social services more often because with one income, they cannot attend to their needs. There will be more single parent families. Congresspersons who speak of family values are contradicting themselves. Of which families do they speak?” he said.

Angela Zambrando from the Central American advocacy group CARECEN said that in addition to disrupting families formed in the United States, elimination of 245(i) would “undermine stability in Central America” as thousands of immigrants return to nations experiencing worse poverty than before the wars of the 1980s.

Immigrants have little to return to in their homelands said Fr. Denis O’Neil at the largely Central American St. Thomas the Apostle church in central Los Angeles.

“They came up here from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua during the bad years of violence and warfare. ... They have to try somehow to make it here,” he said.

O’Neil said he understands there must be balance between peoples’ right to live and move and the right of nations to keep good order. “But I think sometimes the rights of people, of minorities, are pushed aside and ignored because we are so busy trying to watch out for the economic well-being of this country.”

With Central American immigrants, O’Neil said the United States has a “heightened” obligation because of its “big role in creating all the conflict.”

Immigration lawyer Eli A. Rich said his staff has worked 16-hour days processing marriage cases since Clinton signed the extension.

“We have a deadline to meet. The only way to become legal in three weeks is to get married [to a U.S. citizen]. And if I have the power under the law to help my clients become legal overnight, I cannot rely on more extensions from President Clinton,” Rich said.

Rich sees bleak long-term consequences if 245(i) is eliminated. “Nonpayment of taxes, more crime, people won’t be able to work and earn money, more separation between classes,” he said.

“You cannot throw someone who has been here 12 years out of the country in one day. They won’t go. Immigrants have stronger wills than lawmakers. They have to feed families. If you cut out all their exits,” Rich said, “they will simply become more desperate and do things society will not benefit from.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 1997