Stars and Bars

Under a new law, the INS prepares to kick out thousands of immigrants who have done nothing wrong--except play by the rules.

The way Valentina Kostina sees it, the only reason she didn't get deported was because she didn't panic. She didn't get belligerent, didn't argue with the border guard who concluded that she, a Russian citizen, was trying to enter the United States illegally. She acquiesced when the Immigration and Naturalization official at the airport in Anchorage challenged her legal right to rejoin her husband and two daughters in Minnetonka. To demonstrate her compliance, Kostina, who speaks no English, agreed to purchase a ticket back to Moscow on the spot.

Within seconds, Kostina had fallen victim to a series of unusually harsh new changes in immigration law that stand to separate thousands from their U.S. families, businesses, and homes. Her attitude, she says, convinced the INS agent to grant her a three-day "parole" to fly back to the Twin Cities and wrap up her affairs. During those three days, Kostina got an attorney and ultimately became a plaintiff in what could be a landmark class-action suit against the new immigration rules Congress passed last year. For now, she will be able to stay with her family. But for thousands like her--people legally eligible for residency who have run afoul of a technicality or of a border agent with an attitude--September 30 marks the deadline to pack their bags and face an uncertain future.

The Kostines moved to Minnesota a year ago after Valentina's husband, Sergei, was recruited by a Minneapolis firm that specializes in exporting goods from Russia. One of Minnesco's projects, as it happened, was to sell Russian timber to the Japanese. And, notes company President Geoff Evans, "it's possible to count the number of Russians who've sold timber in Japan on one hand." Because there were no qualified U.S. employees, the company was able to secure an employer-sponsored visa for the family.

So when Kostina stepped off the flight from Moscow in Anchorage last May, she expected to clear customs, change planes, and be on her way home in short order. "My visa was in good standing, I had been living in the United States, and my children were in the United States," she says through a translator. "At the immigration control point, when they started asking me questions, there was nothing unusual about that. But when the INS officer asked to look in my briefcase, my heart fell to my knees and I thought, 'What is this about?' He asked me if I worked in America, and I said, 'Certainly not, my husband works in America.' When he looked in my briefcase, he saw in short order contracts with Herbalife."

The visas granted to Kostina and her children don't allow them to work, and she tried explaining to the agent that she didn't work for Herbalife, a multilevel marketing scheme that's akin to Amway, in the United States. In Russia, she'd signed up to be a distributor because cosmetics and herbal supplements were expensive there and Herbalife supervisors--mainly people who induced their friends to sign on as distributors--got a 50-percent discount. Kostina had enjoyed the discount, but never received a penny from the company's Russian division, much less had contact with its U.S. headquarters.

But the INS agent wasn't buying it. In fact, he insisted that Kostina had now compounded her problems by lying, stamped the word "fraud" in her passport in giant red letters, and made a similar entry into the INS computer system. "When it became clear that I had to leave the country," Kostina continues, "I asked, 'What about my children?' They said, 'You must have friends there who would help the children finish school and then pack their bags and go home.' That's when I thought, 'My family's relationship with the United States is over, and probably my husband's work with Minnesco.'"

Back in the Twin Cities, Kostina and her attorney, Laura Danielson, went to the INS regional office in Bloomington to argue her case and plead for someone to lift the deportation order. While the officer on duty quickly agreed that there was nothing to suggest Kostina had worked for Herbalife here, Danielson says the agent still couldn't help them. Under a new federal law, there's no way to appeal a decision made by the INS at a port of entry. The best they could do was to tack another 90 days onto the three days Kostina had been given in Anchorage to clean up her affairs. At least she'd be there when her older daughter graduated from high school.

As it turns out, Kostina won't have to leave the country by September 30. Last week, the INS approved Sergei Kostine's petition to immigrate. Chances are that when he gets his green card, his family will be allowed to stay, too, Danielson says. But that still leaves her--and every other immigration attorney in the Twin Cities--with a practice full of clients trapped in the byzantine permutations of U.S. immigration politics.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was supposed to make it easier for the INS to crack down on scofflaws. But many of its provisions look to have the opposite effect--making it impossible for people eligible for residency to get their legal paperwork in order. As a result, say Danielson and other attorneys who belong to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), tens of thousands of immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens or residents or sponsored by an employer must leave the country by the end of September.

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