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'I do' on deadline

[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Hilario Jiminez, left, and Gabriela DeAlba kiss after taking their vows at the Hillsborough County Courthouse on Friday morning. Their 4-month-old daughter, Cecilia, rests in her infant seat. Deputy clerk Manuel Mangual, who performed the ceremony, is on the right.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001

Weddings were on the rise in March and April as couples married to take advantage of an INS grace period for illegal immigrants to stay in the country.

TAMPA -- There were no wedding rings. No satin gown. No beribboned toasters or place settings.

But because Gabriela DeAlba promised, before the clock struck midnight Monday, to love and honor Hilario Jimenez as long as they both shall live, she gave him what only she could: a chance to live legally in the United States.

DeAlba, carrying a diaper bag, and Jimenez, carrying their 4-month-old daughter, Cecilia, arrived at the Hillsborough County Courthouse minutes after the doors opened Friday morning. As Cecilia kicked her stockinged feet in her infant seat, her parents stepped under an arch covered with silk flowers in a corner of the marriage license office.

The ceremony was in Spanish. Jimenez does not speak English.

"Ahora les declaro esposo y esposa," said deputy clerk Manuel Mangual. I now pronounce you husband and wife.

A quick kiss, a longer hug, and they were gone, he to a job finishing drywall and she to the Spanish music store she manages in Wimauma. By taking part in the two-minute ceremony, they joined the biggest immigration rush in the United States in years.

In recent weeks, thousands of illegal aliens have jammed the phone lines of lawyers, charities and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, inquiring about a four-month window in the immigration law. Called Section 245 (i), it allows illegal aliens to remain in the country while their paperwork is processed if a close relative or employer sponsors them.

Immigration law has always allowed the spouse, parent or child of an immigrant to be a sponsor. But the immigrant has to be in the country legally. Those who enter without paperwork are deportable and can be barred from re-entry for 10 years.

Section 245 (i), in effect, forgives past sins.

Last week in Fort Lauderdale, wedding ceremonies performed at Broward County Courthouse tripled as hundreds of couples waited in folding chairs in a makeshift waiting area in the lobby. In Plant City, a branch office of the Hillsborough County Courthouse dispensed 60 percent more marriage licenses this March and April than in the same months last year.

"We were getting 80 to 100 calls a day," says William Rosas, DeAlba's stepfather and an immigration specialist at Catholic Charities in St. Petersburg.

DeAlba says she and Jimenez already were planning to get married. "We just did it sooner" because of 245 (i).

"I want to help him. I told him, "I want you to be legal. I'm afraid immigration is going to show up and take you,' " she says.

DeAlba, 30, from Tamaulipas state in Mexico, has lived here for 20 years and is a U.S. citizen. She has an 8-year-old son, Gabriel. Jimenez, 33, arrived in the late 1990s from Nuevo Leon state. He said he does not want to talk about how he entered the country.

At first he told DeAlba he would not marry her "on deadline." Everyone would think he married her just for his papers, he told her.

She said it did not matter what people think. The stakes are too high for them to worry about gossip.

Sweeping changes in immigration law passed in 1996 virtually eliminated consideration on merit. Immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. for years, whose children are U.S. citizens, face splitting up their families if they try to become legal or continuing to live in fear of discovery if they don't.

Getting married does not mean Jimenez is guaranteed he will get to stay. INS investigators will review marriages and employer sponsorships submitted under 245 (i) to determine their validity. Paperwork had to be postmarked by midnight Monday, when the four-month window closed. Applications required payment of $1,300: a $300 application fee and a $1,000 fine.

About 10 percent of the estimated 5-million to 10-million illegal residents in the U.S. may qualify to stay under 245 (i), though it is not yet known how many applied. In Florida, an estimated 35,000 people may be eligible.

"If a person has a U.S. relative," says Tampa immigration attorney Bill Flynn, "that's golden. And 245 (i) gets a person over the hump if you entered (illegally)."

Those who applied will likely wait years for approval because of INS backlogs. DeAlba and Jimenez submitted their INS application after the wedding but likely won't see any action taken before their first anniversary.

"But what (immigrants) get is the government saying, "We're going to overlook that you're not legal, that you worked when you didn't have a permit,' " says Rosas.

At the courthouse Friday, a man and a woman waiting in line behind DeAlba and Jimenez said they heard about the deadline on the television news. "I wasn't planning on getting married now, but because of the deadline we will," said Isabelle, a U.S. citizen, of her wedding to Frank, who arrived from the Dominican Republic six years ago. They declined to give their last names.

"You've got nowhere to go now," Frank teased Jimenez in Spanish, as Jimenez exited the pseudo wedding chapel.

That is just the pronouncement Jimenez wants from his adopted country.

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