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    Immigration deadline brings rush of cases


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001

    MIAMI -- It's the biggest immigration rush in years.

    Days before the midnight Monday deadline, thousands of illegal immigrants are trying to take advantage of an obscure, widely misunderstood law passed during the final days of the Clinton administration that allows illegal immigrants with proven job skills to obtain permanent residency if they are sponsored by an employer or a close family relative.

    Lawyers are working overtime to cope with last-minute petitions all over the country, and federal officials are gearing up for a long weekend.

    Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in Tampa and Miami will be open until midnight Monday to accommodate the expected last-minute applicants. The U.S. Department of Labor, which has a say in employer-sponsored cases, will also keep its Tallahassee offices open until midnight Monday to handle late filings.

    "This provision is beginning to show the enormity of the underground population. We are seeing people literally come out of the woodwork to investigate this opportunity," said Michael Bander, senior partner at Bander, Fox-Isicoff and Associates, a leading Miami immigration firm.

    Florida has about 350,000 illegal immigrants, the fourth-highest number in the country, according to INS figures. But lawyers say the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act, as the law is known, applies only to a small number -- barely 10 percent -- of the estimated 5-million to 10-million foreigners living illegally in the country.

    Even so, Bander's firm has had to set up a legal "war room" to handle the extra case load.

    Charts on the walls plot the course of some 300 cases the firm is handling in the last week before the law expires. Coffee mugs, staplers, hole punchers and pens clutter a table where a half-dozen lawyers sort out cases.

    "It's a big-time operation here," said war room chief Steve Murphy. "We're helping a lot of people."

    The firm has plane reservations to fly to Tallahassee on Monday to file the last cases. They may send a car as well because all flights and hotels are booked.

    It's been hectic since the law went into effect Dec. 21.

    "Certainly the surge in applications is there," INS spokeswoman Maria Elena Garcia said, referring to the Tampa Bay area. She said 1,100 adjustment-of-status applications had been requested from the Tampa office since December.

    "We are seeing longer lines at all our district offices," said Elaine Komis, another INS spokeswoman. Calls to the INS' customer help line have leapt 30 percent, from 750,000 a month to more than 1-million.

    "People are very interested in this piece of legislation," Komis said.

    Lawyers and immigration officials say they battled early misunderstanding of the law when rumors flew around that the government was offering a general amnesty to anyone who paid $1,000.

    But few illegal immigrants fulfill the law's criteria. Aliens with specialized job skills must first find an employer willing to sponsor them. Many employers are unwilling to take on the paperwork, often fearing the risk of coming under suspicion for hiring illegal workers.

    The position must be full-time and offered at a fair wage. Employers must also first pay for advertising to check if there is a qualified American available.

    Finally, employer petitions are complicated and require expert legal guidance, costing around $8,000.

    It can be far cheaper for family members seeking to sponsor a close relative. Filing a family petition is fairly simple and can be done without legal help. This has also led to a marriage blitz across South Florida, according to local authorities. Broward County Courthouse has been so busy, officials turned the lobby into a waiting room for couples.

    The law temporarily revived an immigration provision that was in effect from 1994 to 1998. Known as Clause 245(i), the provision permits illegal aliens to adjust their status without having to visit a U.S. consulate in a foreign country.

    This became crucial after Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, which imposed stiff penalties on people who left the country after having overstayed their visas, thereby discouraging those considering trying to legalize their status.

    A late departure of more than six months is punishable by a three-year ban on re-entry, rising to 10 years for more than a one-year overstay.

    "They want to make people legal. That's why they are doing this," Murphy said. "They are bending over backward to give people a break. But there's lots more people out there who aren't covered."

    Jairo Lara, a 42-year-old interior painter from Colombia, is one of the lucky ones, although his personal story is typical of the circumstances of many South Florida immigrants.

    He and his wife and daughter have been living and working illegally in the United States for 18 months after they fled their home town of Barrancabermeja. More than 200 people have died there in fighting between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries during the first few months of this year.

    "The guerrillas took away my farm. When I complained, they put a death sentence on my head," he said.

    His wife only heard about the law last week. Tuesday, Lara was at a lawyers' office filling in the forms with his sponsor, Julian Garcia, the Cuban-American owner of a Miami construction firm.

    "Normally employers in my position don't want to know about people like him," Garcia said. "They don't want the hassle. They say "Go find another job.' "

    Garcia, 44, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1969, said he sympathized with Lara's predicament.

    "Having had roots in a communist country and what it is to be persecuted, I'm ready to help anyone within my reach," he added.

    Lara said he was grateful for the window of opportunity provided by the law. His 10-year-old daughter is at the top of her class and already speaks perfect English.

    "This law has given us a chance. Now we don't have to hide anymore."

    - Staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

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