Illegal immigrants swamp INS offices to beat deadline
LOS ANGELES (AP) – With a midnight deadline looming to apply for a visa without leaving the country, thousands of illegal immigrants spent Monday standing in line at Immigration and Naturalization Service offices throughout the state.
In downtown Los Angeles, more than 2,000 applicants were lined up outside the federal building when it opened at 6 a.m., many having camped out all night.
”It’s huge. So big,” said Sharon A. Gavin, director of public affairs for the INS in Los Angeles, as she surveyed the crowd.
The line diminished by midmorning as agents weeded out people who just wanted to hand in forms or who didn’t need to be there first. But the office would stay open until midnight.
In San Francisco, newspapers, empty soda bottles and fast food bags were strewn around the INS building as people holding blankets and packets of documents stood in lines snaking around a block.
For Yvette Garcia and her husband, Juan, the wait began at 11 p.m. Sunday, but by noon Monday, they were almost finished – Juan was just waiting to receive his employment authorization card.
”It was hard, but it was worth it,” said Yvette Garcia, who is jointly sponsoring Juan. ”It was an experience. I don’t know how the homeless do it.”
The Legal Immigration and Family Equity (LIFE) Act that took effect in December allows 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 for the immigrant to later apply for a green card, which signifies permanent legal residency.
To apply, an immigrant must be sponsored and have a close relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Then the immigrant must pay $225 in application and fingerprinting fees and a $1,000 fine for entering the country illegally.
Applications must be postmarked or delivered to the INS by midnight Monday.
Marriage to a U.S. citizen is often the easiest way to apply for a visa, and the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s office was doing a brisk business in marriage licenses Monday morning.
At the district office in heavily Latino East Los Angeles, officials had sold more than 260 marriage licenses by noon – about 10 times as many as in a typical day, said Maria D. Lopez, an office supervisor.
For weeks couples have been showing up asking, ”’Please, please, can you marry us?”’ Lopez said.
”We had an abundance this morning,” she said.
Many of the marriage licenses, which cost $66.75 each, are sold to notary publics who are authorized to perform marriages. Some notary publics have been showing up once or twice a day recently to restock, Lopez said.
But for one couple waiting outside the San Diego INS office Monday, marriage wasn’t the answer.
Po Chuy Yee Ma, 35, and Yue Ying Lei, 26, got married two months ago, but they said it wasn’t because Yue needs a green card.
In fact marriage was why the couple was so late in filing with the INS.
”We didn’t think about this. We were so busy planning our wedding that we didn’t see the news,” Po said.
AP staff writers Ben Fox in San Diego and Margie Mason in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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