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House Panel OKs 3-Week Extension of Green Card Rule

September 27, 1997|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A key House of Representatives committee has agreed to extend for more than three weeks a controversial law that has allowed hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants with approved green card petitions to stay in the United States while they legalize their status.

The provision, approved by Congress in 1994, allows the illegal immigrants to pay a $1,000 fine in order to remain in the United States while awaiting their green cards. Applicants for the cards, which grant official U.S. residency, are supposed to wait abroad, but in practice many are here unlawfully.

The rule is scheduled to lapse Tuesday, a fact that has sent shock waves through immigrant communities in Los Angeles and resulted in long lines at Immigration and Naturalization Service offices nationwide. But the House Appropriations Committee action--regarded as certain to be affirmed by the Senate and President Clinton--should ensure that the law will remain on the books until at least Oct. 23, experts said Friday.

The measure's impending expiration--combined with new penalties contained in a separate law that comes into full force this weekend--has left thousands of illegal immigrants with pending green card applications facing a wrenching choice: leave the country by today to preserve the integrity of their application, or risk losing the right to attain permanent legal status for up to 10 years.

The House committee included the three-week extension as part of a temporary spending bill. The Senate has already agreed to a permanent extension of the provision, known as Section 245 (i) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. A House-Senate conference committee will probably decide the section's ultimate fate.

More than 500,000 illegal immigrants have applied for legal status via Section 245 (i) since its inception three years ago, according to the INS.

Those eligible to use the provision are illegal immigrants whose green cards are ready, typically after years of waiting. Petitioning on their behalf are close relatives who are citizens or legal residents, or employers vowing to hire them.

The Clinton administration, joined by business groups and immigrant advocates, is pushing for a permanent extension of the provision, which supporters say avoids the needless dividing of immigrant families. The measure is both a major moneymaker--the INS expects to take in $214 million in fines during this fiscal year--and substantially reduces the workload for U.S. consular offices overseas.

But critics say the provision allows illegal immigrants to "launder" their illicit presence and rewards them for breaking the law. In addition, detractors say consulates abroad are better equipped than INS offices in the United States to screen green card applicants for criminal records and other problems that could render them ineligible.

At the INS office in downtown Los Angeles, officials say the normally heavy volume of clients has doubled in the past week or so. Many in line wrongly perceive that there is some new amnesty, said Rosemary Melville, INS deputy director in Los Angeles.

Notwithstanding the likely extension, the INS plans to keep its L.A. office open until midnight Tuesday to accept last-minute applications.

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