A federal judge in Sacramento barred U.S. immigration authorities Friday from further implementation of a controversial plan that would have forced more than 1 million permanent residents to renew their green cards or face losing the document that proves their legal status.
U.S. District Judge Edward J. Garcia, ruling orally in a broad class-action case brought by green card holders, also ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service to refund the $70 green card replacement filing fee to the tens of thousands who have applied thus far.
The judge also enjoined the INS from accepting any more such fees, attorneys said.
Presumably eligible for the refund are more than 60,000 people in the Greater Los Angeles area who have already filed for replacements. Many more elsewhere in the nation will also probably be eligible for refunds, but authorities could provide no precise numbers Friday.
"An illegal tax," is how Linton Joaquin, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, characterized the fee.
Immigrant advocates expressed jubilation at the judge's decision.
"If the INS wishes to implement this replacement program, it should seek special funding or take the necessary steps to change the current law," said Joaquin, a lawyer with the National Immigration Law Center, a project of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
Critics had assailed the INS for introducing the replacement program last June without extensive consultations with the immigrant community and their representatives. The effort was designed to reduce the huge volume of fraudulent immigration paperwork. Authorities sought to replace older, counterfeit-prone documents with newer and more secure cards.
No immediate decision was made on whether the INS would appeal the judge's ruling, said Virginia Kice, an agency spokeswoman. The ruling leaves the future of the much-criticized initiative in doubt.
"The agency is reviewing the decision and considering its various options," Kice said.
The replacement program, announced in June, had generated great uncertainty in the immigrant community. Those affected had been living in the United States legally since at least 1977, and many resented having to pay the fee and go through the tortuous process of waiting in line at INS offices and applying for new cards. Confused immigrants have besieged social service agencies with inquires about the initiative.
In February, the INS, facing a firestorm of criticism and the federal court challenge, rescinded an Aug. 2 deadline for green card renewals. At that point, authorities suspended the program and said the renewal effort was henceforth a voluntary matter. However, officials added that they planned to revive the mandatory effort at some point.
Consequently, many green card holders continued to head to INS offices and independent service agencies seeking to acquire the new green cards. The INS kept processing applications and accepting fees, even though the initiative was technically suspended and its future was hazy.
The green cards affected, known technically as forms I-151, were last issued legally in 1977. The document is a favorite with counterfeiters.