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In The News

Immigration law myths debunked

Hernán Rozemberg
The Arizona Republic Feb. 11, 2001

People working in immigration law circles in Phoenix might as well strap on firefighter gear.

For weeks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and immigration lawyers have been dousing fires sparked by rumors about a law enacted by President Clinton in his last days in office.

The Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act temporarily revived an expired law that allows undocumented immigrants living here to apply for legal status without having to leave the country. Without the law, Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, they had to return to their homeland to apply for their papers and faced a three- to 10-year ban on returning. Applications will be taken through April 30.

The LIFE Act also reopened the door for thousands of immigrants denied amnesty years ago, and it created temporary opportunities for them to obtain documents.

And in Phoenix, it has also given life to snowballing rumors turned myths exaggerating the potential benefits.

"For some reason I fail to understand, there are a lot of people out there who think we're offering a new amnesty," said Russell Ahr, spokesman for the INS in Phoenix. "But that's just one of a growing number of myths. Others I'm hearing a lot are that now anybody can obtain a work permit or that notaries public can get you papers in a week for a fee."

Another popular belief has it that all you have to do is fork over $1,000 to the INS and you've got yourself a residency card. Not quite: That amount, plus an extra $300 to $500 for processing, will get applications from qualified candidates into the system.

And therein lies the crux of the dilemma: Just who qualifies?

Not most immigrants who think - or hope - they do, numerous immigration lawyers in Phoenix say. Their offices are being flooded with dozens of calls. But barely one in five of those callers have turned out to be eligible to take advantage of the renewed opportunity.

"People must realize that though this does provide a bit of extra help for immigrants, it's very limited," said Emilia Bañuelos, an immigration lawyer and community activist. "Don't be fooled. There are all kinds of people out there with little knowledge professing miracles."

In one case, a woman reported that she and several family members paid $3,500 to get papers. The contact told them she had an aunt working for the INS who could process the documents. Weeks later, the woman is still waiting and believes she has been the victim of a scam.

Authorities say they need formal complaints from victims in order to investigate immigration fraud. "We understand there are people out there taking advantage of immigrants. We need people to come forward," said Virginia González, a lawyer in the civil rights division of the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

Bañuelos, other attorneys and Ahr are offering their time to community groups asking for clarification on the law. They find themselves repeating that only undocumented immigrants with family members who are either U.S. permanent residents or citizens may apply. Residents can petition only for their spouses and children under 21. Citizens can do so for spouses and children, as well as brothers and sisters.

The "late amnesty" clause applies only to those who were denied amnesty a decade ago and took part in at least one of three successful class-action lawsuits against the INS. They have a year to reapply for amnesty.

The other new visas allow for the reunification of families split by lagging government bureaucracy. A "V" visa allows the family of someone waiting for at least three years for an already-approved residency card to come here and get work permits. The "K" visa will enable spouses and children of U.S. citizens living abroad to also legally settle here.

Employment-based visas are also attainable, but employers interested in sponsoring a worker must go through the U.S. Labor Certification process, which can easily take months or even years.

No matter what you do, experts warn, think twice before handing over personal documents and money to a stranger.

"People are very vulnerable right now because all they want to see, think and hear is good news," said Kathleen Judd, director of the Immigration Outreach Center in Phoenix. "But, truth be told, very little has changed from before. A little window of opportunity has been opened for a little while. That's all."

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