Juan Vasquez will not be going home for Christmas. Again.
That was the bad news that Vasquez and hundreds of thousands of other amnesty applicants received Thursday from U.S. immigration authorities. Most applicants for amnesty under the new immigration law will not be able to return to their home countries this Christmas without jeopardizing their chances for permanent legal residence status in the United States, authorities said, repeating an earlier position.
"They can't leave the country and come back without our permission," said Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, who spoke during a news briefing held at the INS' San Diego amnesty office.
However, a minority of amnesty-seekers whose applications are relatively advanced are allowed to make foreign visits.
Vasquez, an amnesty applicant from Mexico who hasn't been home for Christmas in seven years, isn't in the advanced group; therefore he must remain in the United States. He watched the press conference from his seat in the INS waiting room, unaware of the meaning of most of the English discussion but profoundly affected by the point in question.
Traditionally, many undocumented migrants return to their families in Mexico and elsewhere during the holiday season.
Ezell, a frequent target of immigrant-rights groups, was asked if he wasn't being a Scrooge.
"I am sure that most people will agree that remaining in the United States is a small sacrifice for the eventual right to make the United States their lawful permanent home," Ezell replied.
It had been known for some time that most amnesty applicants would not be able to leave the United States, but officials decided to reiterate that position Thursday just to be sure. In fact, many amnesty applicants seem unaware or confused about the restriction; critics have assailed the INS for its purported failure to reach out to the undocumented community about this and other confusing aspects of the amnesty program.
"Does this card mean I go back to Mexico or not?" one woman asked a newsman after the press conference, offering her immigration document for inspection. The answer was no.
A Cumbersome Process
Compounding the confusion is the fact that amnesty is a cumbersome multi-step process; applicants' ability to leave the United States legally and return depends on how far along they are in the process.
Initially, those whose applications are found to have merit are issued an immigration document known as a form I-688A, which allows them to work and remain in the United States, usually for six months. The great majority of amnesty applicants--including Juan Vasquez and some 30,000 other formerly undocumented foreigners in San Diego and Imperial counties--are currently in this category. They are prohibited from leaving the United States. However, those seeking to leave for emergency reasons, such as the serious illness or death of a relative, may be eligible to receive special permission from immigration authorities.
A second, more advanced category of amnesty applicants consists of those who have received a document known as a form I-688, or temporary resident card. Holders of these cards may travel outside the United States; however, they may not be gone for more than 30 days at a time and for no longer than a cumulative 90 days during their time as temporary legal residents.
Juan Vasquez will not be among the lucky ones. A bulky, round-faced painter who lives in San Diego, the 33-year-old Vasquez said he would like to visit his wife and four children, who are back in his home in the tiny rancho of Progreso, in Puebla state, deep in the Mexican interior. But, Vasquez added, he hasn't been home for Christmas in a long time, and there's no point in jeopardizing his new-found legal status.
"It's not worth what I stand to lose," he said. "I'll stay here for Christmas."