Bush supports more time for immigrants to apply for visas
WASHINGTON (AP) – Illegal immigrants who missed the deadline to apply for visas to stay in the country may get another chance.
President Bush sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to extend the deadline, which was midnight Monday.
”I am a strong proponent of government policies that recognize the importance of families and that help strengthen them,” Bush said in his letter. ”I believe our immigration policies should reflect that policy.”
The announcement, applauded by immigrant groups, came a day after illegal immigrants flocked to Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to beat the deadline.
”Wow,” said Angie Kelley, a National Immigration Forum spokeswoman. ”It’s a very positive thing coming from the administration. Now what we need is quick action from the House and Senate. The president has opened the door and now we need Congress to step through to make it a reality.”
However, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Hispanic Congressional Caucus chairman, said Bush’s pronouncement should have come sooner. The Texas Democrat said caucus members raised the issue with Bush during their early April meeting with him.
”The timing of this whole thing is very curious. You don’t allow something to lapse and say, ‘Hey, by the way, I agree they ought to have more time,”’ said Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief.
The Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act that took effect in December allowed an estimated 640,000 illegal immigrants to apply for visas without first returning to their home countries and applying from there. That is significant because most illegal immigrants are barred from re-entering the United States once they leave.
A visa allows an immigrant to stay in the country and reserves a place to later apply for a green card, which means permanent legal residency.
To apply for visas, immigrants had to be sponsored and have a close relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. They also had to pay $225 in application and fingerprinting fees and a $1,000 fine for entering the country illegally. They also must have been in the United States on Dec. 21, 2000.
Marriage to a U.S. citizen was the quickest way to legal status for many, and the number of weddings surged in many areas after the immigration law took effect.
Those who applied by Monday remain illegal until they are granted a visa, which can take two to 20 years. Their application does not give them protection from deportation or allow them to work.
But INS will not use the applications to detain and deport illegal immigrants, said INS spokesman Bill Strassberger.
”We will not be moving against these people, but they are still illegally in the U.S. they would be subject to removal if encountered during an enforcement operation, such as a work site inspection,” Strassberger said.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has been pushing for a deadline extension, said he was pleased with Bush’s support. He and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., had sent Bush a letter signed by 38 lawmakers requesting an extension.
”Immigrants are the lifeblood of America,” King said. ”Technicalities should not prevent them from losing out on citizenship.”
King is sponsoring a bill to extend the deadline by six months, while Rangel’s would extend it a year. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., wants to permanently offer the amnesty. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., also is sponsoring a one-year extension measure.
Fleischer said Bush would work with congressional leaders to determine how long the extension should be. The White House estimated an extension would affect about 200,000 people.
Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee chairman, said that although he was satisfied with the four-month application period, he could support an extension to accommodate applicants who didn’t meet the deadline.
On the Net:
Immigration and Naturalization Service: http://www.ins.usdoj.gov
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