Cristina Sanchez's life just got a lot less complicated.
Her parents uprooted her from her native Michoacan, Mexico, and sneaked her into the United States when she was 13. She adapted well, though, graduating from Estancia High School in Costa Mesa and attending Orange Coast College for two years.
But although Sanchez--now 24, married and the mother of a 2-year-old boy--would appear to be just the kind of amnesty applicant the Immigration and Naturalization Service would favorably consider, a strict interpretation of the new immigration law would disqualify her from obtaining legal resident status.
The law, passed in November, 1986, grants legal resident status to illegal aliens who have lived in the United States continuously since Jan. 1, 1982. Illegal aliens who thought they qualified began applying for amnesty in May, and thousands have already received temporary resident status.
But the INS has been holding up thousands of cases--including Sanchez's--in which the applicants left the United States for a short time and re-entered with a legal visa--thereby interrupting their illegal residence in the country and, as the law has been interpreted until now, disqualifying themselves from the amnesty program.
On Thursday, the INS announced it would relax its interpretation of the law to accommodate such cases.
"I'm really glad," said Sanchez, who works as an assistant immigration counselor for Catholic Charities of Orange County. "Not only for me, but for a lot of the people here who have the same problem."
Catholic Charities lawyer Ted McCabe said the ruling could affect 400 of the agency's 2,500 cases already filed with the INS.
The new interpretation erases a lot of uncertainty for Sanchez. While her own amnesty application lay on an INS shelf awaiting a policy decision, her husband's has so far sailed through without complications. Their son, William, was born here and is a U.S. citizen.
Sanchez's parents expect to qualify under another provision of immigration law that grants legal status to aliens who have lived in the United States continuously since 1972. Her 22-year-old sister, Mireya, was in the same predicament as she was and expects to benefit from the INS decision.
The two sisters' problem stems from an April, 1982, trip the family took to visit relatives in Michoacan. When they were ready to return to the United States a month later, they decided it was too dangerous to cross the border illegally, so they went to Mexico City to obtain visas from the U.S. Embassy, Sanchez said.
"It was really easy," she said. "You just had to show that you had money in the bank in Mexico, a home and a decent job." The family showed all of those things, even though their actual residence was in Costa Mesa.
Sanchez's visitor visa entitled her to remain in the United States for three days, but that short period of legal residence was enough to disqualify her from obtaining amnesty under the new immigration law. The law stipulates that applicants must have continuously lived in the United States unlawfully since Jan. 1, 1982.
According to the new INS interpretation of the law, however, the Sanchez family's visas were obtained fraudulently, because they already lived in the United States, albeit unlawfully, and had no intention of using the visitors visas for their intended purpose.
McCabe said Catholic Charities and other groups assisting illegal aliens in obtaining amnesty have argued for several months that the visas should not interrupt unlawful status.
But by conceding that visas were obtained fraudulently, McCabe said, an amnesty applicant would effectively be excluding himself from legal status based on other sections of the law. Those sections state that people who obtained visas by fraud or who committed crimes of moral turpitude--which include visa fraud--cannot obtain a waiver on their grounds of excludability, except for humanitarian purposes.