Just when the Bush administration has been subjected to increased pressure over its immigration policies, the U.S. House of Representatives has given illegal Caribbean and other immigrants much to celebrate.
With strong support from the White House, the House last Wednesday passed a bill that would allow thousands of Caribbean immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to obtain visas here without returning home to file applications, as was normally the case.
The House passed the bill, widely known by its legal citation as Section 245 (i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, by a vote of 275 to 137. The Senate, which had approved a similar provision, is expected to pass the House measure.
Ninety-two Republicans voted in favor of the bill’s extension to November 30th or to the date four months after the government issues rules for the new program, whichever is earlier.
One hundred and twenty-three Republicans opposed it. On the Democratic side, 182 voted in favor, while 13 voted against it.
The bill would temporarily extend a provision of federal law that allows illegal immigrants to apply for green cards while still living here.
The immigrants, however, must already qualify for the green cards sought on their behalf by close relatives or employers in the country.
Immigrants expected to benefit by the change in the law include those who, at one point, overstayed their visas, worked here without permission, or failed to take the requisite courses for foreign students.
Under the eligibility criteria, a person seeking a visa based on a family relationship must demonstrate that the relationship existed before Aug.15, 2001. For example, the spouse of a U.S. citizen would not qualify unless the marriage took place before that date.
For those seeking a visa under employment status, they must prove that the employer applied for labor certification before August 15, 2001.
In a previous extension of Section 245 (i), 500,000 illegal immigrants were eligible for adjustment of their status. But, according to the White House, 200,000 did not meet the deadline, which ended on April 30, 2001.
“The bill sends a message to the world that our country will be a beacon to all who love freedom and the opportunity to live, work and raise a family,” said Dick Armey (R-Texas), a strong supporter of the bill.
Harlem Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel also welcomed the bill’s passage, stating that it’s a step in the right direction.
“This is a small step that will prevent the disruption of the lives of thousands of families by allowing undocumented aliens who are otherwise eligible for immigrant visas to remain in this country while applying for permanent residence,” he said. “While I believe Section 245(i) should be made permanent, this action will benefit some of the people who are working hard to earn a piece of the American dream.”
But while most Democrats were, clearly, in favor of the bill, some, including Rangel, said that it did not go far enough.
Opponents of the bill said that it would reward lawbreakers and jeopardize national security.
Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), leader of the opposition, said that the bill would “invite future terrorists to exploit lax enforcement of the immigration laws.”
Representatives on both sides of the argument disagreed on whether it would provide amnesty for illegal immigrants.
“This is no amnesty,” said Christopher Cannon (R-Utah). “Section 245(i) benefits a limited pool of people who have already been determined to be eligible for permanent legal residence based on their family or employment relationships. The issue is not whether these immigrants are eligible or not, but where they may apply.”
But Tancredo retorted: “The only reason we are here is to provide amnesty for people here illegally.”
He predicted that millions of illegal immigrants would apply to adjust their status. The bill had originally been scheduled for a vote on September 11th last year, the same day that terrorists struck America.
Since that time, critics say that thousands of immigrants have been detained by the U.S. for terrorist or suspected terrorist activities.
But while refusing to issue a list of those detained or give a full accounting of the number, the Justice Department has said that only 327 individuals are currently detained.
Further, the department said that those in detention are on immigration violations or are being investigated for “possible terrorist connections.”
The government’s number does not include those being held under sealed indictments or as material witnesses.
James Zogby, chairman of the Arab American Institute, said he believed the 327 number were those still in custody from an original 1,200 arrested just after September 11th, and the real number of those held today is as high as 2,000.
“People released from the various detention centers tell us there are huge numbers of Arabs being held,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and 15 other organizations last December filed a lawsuit seeking disclosure of basic information about individuals arrested and detained since the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that killed 3,000 people.
Meantime, amnesty workers who have interviewed many detainees, their lawyers and their relatives, charged that the government has violated a number of international and U.S. prison standards.
These include not allowing detainees enough telephone calls to relatives or their lawyers; continued detention despite the posting of bond, or requests that detainees be deported; and the holding of detainees in cramped cells around the clock.
“We have provided appropriate conditions of custody for the detainees,” said Karen Krashaar, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The INS itself is reeling from a major embarrassment of mailing visa extensions to two dead September 11th hijackers.
Last Monday, Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida, received visa approval forms for Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, two of the terrorists who flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center. The INS has since reassigned four midlevel employees.
As immigration is under heightened scrutiny in the wake of September 11th, media reports indicate that law-enforcement officials have begun tracking down illegal immigrants as part of a new nationwide program to deport them quickly.
The INS reportedly has a list of 400,000 names to work with, and between 3,000 and 4,000 of those are in the New York area.
The list includes people who have overstayed their visas, had their requests for asylum denied, or have been charged with crimes