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    New rule gives illegals false hope

    By KATHRYN WEXLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001


    TAMPA -- No matter what immigration attorney Neil Lewis says to some of the excited foreigners calling him these days, he can't make them understand that the United States is not suddenly handing visas to all its illegal immigrants.

    "They say, "No, no; I know that everyone who's here may pay $1,000 and get a green card!' " said Lewis, a Tampa lawyer.

    The confusion is sweeping immigrant communities nationwide. It comes down to a provision in immigration law that is obscure to the general public but known to millions of foreigners as 245(i).

    Certain illegal immigrants can, for a brief time, petition for permanent residency without leaving the United States. Until now, anyone living in the United States illegally had to return home and plead to an American consulate there.

    The catch: They were barred from re-entering the United States for up to 10 years because they had been here illegally. That was enough to keep most people lurking indefinitely on the dark side of the law.

    Yet the United States is hardly flinging open its doors, immigration officials emphasize. The change, which just reinstates a provision in effect from 1994 to 1998, does not relax standards for obtaining legal status.

    Nor does it reduce the tedious paperwork required for an application. It still takes a family member or employer to petition for a foreigner's permanent residency, and it must be done by April 30.

    "This is in no way, shape or form, an amnesty," said Maria Elena Garcia, Florida spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

    The INS estimates that up to 6-million people live in the United States illegally. Only 100,000 to 150,000 will likely benefit from the reinstated provision, said INS spokeswoman Elaine Komis. Even more could benefit from a handful of other changes in immigration regulations that President Clinton approved in his last days in office.

    Florida has about 350,000 illegal immigrants, the fourth-highest number in the country, according to 1996 estimates. Clearly, say local lawyers, the number of foreigners calling their offices for legal advice and who can celebrate the changes are in the slim minority.

    But that doesn't seem to be sinking in, say immigrant officials, legal advisers and charity workers. Desperation is driving misconceptions, say those who work with immigrants. And immigrant advocates are worried that scam artists will take advantage of the confusion and trade unsuspecting foreigners empty promises of visas in exchange for hefty sums.

    "People have been waiting for amnesty for so long, they want to believe it's true," said Carlos Betancourt of Catholic Charities in Tampa.

    To combat the confusion, Catholic Charities has passed out fliers explaining the provision at churches that serve immigrant communities. Spanish-language radio stations have devoted talk shows to the issue. INS offices in Tampa, Miami and across the country have seen the numbers of foreigners inquiring about their legal status shoot up. Hopeful immigrants are also flocking to places like Lutheran Services on W Martin Luther King Boulevard, which has always catered to legal immigrants.

    Said Tampa attorney Mark Weiner, "People are going nuts."

    * * *

    "This is in no way, shape or form, an amnesty." -- Maria Elena Garcia, Florida spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service

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