A Justice Department decision to enforce--with fines or deportation possible--a long-neglected law requiring noncitizens to report address changes has enraged some immigrant advocates in Southern California, where more than 1 million residents will be affected by the new policy.
Civil liberties and immigrant rights workers said otherwise-law-abiding residents could be severely punished, either mistakenly or for minor, inadvertent offenses.
"It's outrageous. It's terribly unfair when you have a law on the books for so long, then spring it on people," said Mark Yoshida, a lawyer who works on immigration and citizenship cases for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Yoshida fears that immigrants who don't find out about the new enforcement policy could face unreasonably harsh treatment. "Some people could be subjected to some pretty severe penalties. It boggles the mind," he said.
Plans to strictly uphold the 50-year-old law were announced Monday as part of an effort begun before Sept. 11 to improve the system of tracking foreign visitors and residents. Those who are older than 14 and living in the United States legally but are not citizens would have to report changes of address within 10 days of moving or risk fines, jail and deportation.
More than 1 million residents of Los Angeles County and 100,000 in Orange County are subject to the requirement.
The sheer number of people to be tracked, in an area where the Immigration and Naturalization Service is already overwhelmed by its workload, has left some skeptical of the agency's ability to successfully implement the plan. Yoshida said that each month his office assists 50 to 100 citizenship applicants. Each month, two or three cases typically emerge in which applicants tell the INS of an address change but the agency fails to update its records, he said.
"If they can't handle the situation now, what happens when they're faced with implementing the new law?" Yoshida asked.
Benjamin Wizner, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, also questioned the INS' ability to track such a large number of people. "Obviously, the government does not have the capability to track the movements of millions of residents. I fear there will be selective enforcement. The government may use its vast powers to target individuals or groups on the basis of national origin or race," he said.
Fair enforcement was also the concern of Mahmoud Abdel-Baset, religious and social services coordinator of the Islamic Center of Southern California. "As long as Muslims are not singled out, we would not object," he said. "It has to be applicable to everybody."
But Angelica Salas, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said the new policy itself places an unfair burden on noncitizens. Salas said the policy imposes on the privacy rights of lawful residents. "It is an unnecessary singling out of hard-working people who are in every other way living like citizens," she said.
Salas said the policy change could prompt more legal residents to become citizens for practical reasons.
"The motivation [to seek citizenship] should be a positive decision based on the ideals of our country. Now people are going to say, 'I'd better become a citizen to protect myself,' " she said.
Salas said a rush of citizenship applications would also place more demands on the INS, making it even more difficult to manage the task of keeping up with address changes.