The Fast Track

A last-minute maneuver by President Clinton provides a loophole for immigrants seeking citizenship

Jeremy Concha's face is still ruddy, his eyes tiny slits allowing in only the smallest amounts of light. Out of the womb at eight pounds, he is now three days old, the size of a grown man's shoe. His mother, 22-year-old Anna Wagner, has been home from the hospital for only one day. But the family is already developing a routine. Anna whirls around her small, south Minneapolis apartment with her slumbering child in one arm. When her firstborn's face tightens, arms flail, and mouth opens into a scream, Wagner calmly uses her index finger to massage the top of his mouth. To Wagner's way of thinking, an agitated child with dirty diapers is nothing to fret about.

Wagner's husband Marco Concha Vela comes in from the other room, where he has been playing with his nephew. Unlike Jeremy, who inherited his father's red hair, Concha is not a U.S. citizen. In fact, in November 2000, the Immigration and Naturalization Service slated him for deportation. And that, Wagner says, was worth worrying about.

Concha, now 27 years old, came to the U.S. illegally from Veracruz, Mexico, in 1998, traveling to Minnesota to reunite with relatives. Concha met Wagner, a Minneapolis native, through a mutual friend a year and a half ago. When Wagner became pregnant, the couple scrapped plans for a large church wedding in Concha's hometown and wed in Minnesota, a turn of events with a silver lining. Had Concha and Wagner been in Mexico as planned, Concha would not have qualified for the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act, which became law on December 21, 2000.

Previously, immigrants were required to return home to their respective countries until they were granted permanent resident status, sometimes a decadelong process. The LIFE Act allows spouses of U.S. citizens to wait out their visas stateside, ensuring the process will take months instead of years. Relatives of permanent American citizens can also have their visa applications reviewed in the United States. Previously, the government required immigrants to apply in their respective countries, a time-consuming and frustrating process.

To some, the LIFE Act smacked of Clintonian high jinks, just another example of his last-minute effort to upstage President George W. Bush's first days in office. In reality, though, the law is merely an extension of 245(i), a federal law that expired on January 14, 1998 and has been a subject of debate in Congress ever since. But in order to appease legislators, worried that the act would create an influx of illegal immigrants, Clinton agreed that only wannabe citizens on U.S. soil the day he signed the legislation would be eligible. What's more, the LIFE Act will only be in effect until April 30, essentially making it little more than a legal loophole.

As a result local immigration-law offices have been inundated with applicants. Susan Koberstein is an attorney with Central Legal, a nonprofit law agency serving a solely Hispanic clientele. She says the act has been a godsend for clients such as Concha, who would have otherwise been removed from the country. "I do deportation cases, and there are a lot of clients I have who were ordered to leave the United States. And now, because of 245(i), I can reopen their cases and get those orders rescinded and apply for the residency here in the United States. It's affected a good portion of my clients already."

Although there is very little organized opposition to the LIFE Act, Koberstein points out that an anti-immigrant atmosphere still permeates American culture, making it unlikely that an even more conservative political atmosphere will allow for additional legislation aimed at aiding those seeking residency. As recently as 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that took aim at 245(i), increased the number of deportable offenses, and restricted the amount and types of government assistance for immigrants. "We were expecting a lot more immigration-friendly changes, not just the extension of 245(i)," she says of Clinton's administration.

Since the LIFE Act's inception, Centro Legal has worked tirelessly to let immigrants know of the law's benefits. The legal staff has conducted five different workshops and screened more than 2,000 people to find out whether they qualify, including Wagner and Concha. "We've been swamped by people calling us for assistance in helping them file by the deadline date," Koberstein says. "We can't handle all of the calls we are getting; we don't have any more appointments left. We're just referring people to private attorneys. We're doing as much as we can, but unfortunately we can't meet all the needs out there."

For Concha, though, the LIFE Act will likely be the happy ending to a long, winding story. Last fall he was detained by the border patrol in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and the INS began deportation proceedings. Ultimately, they granted Concha a voluntary departure, allowing him to leave under his own volition any time before February 21, 2001.

Concha and Wagner scurried to find a loophole. When it appeared nothing would work, the expectant couple planned a trip to Mexico, where they would stay until there was a way for them to return to U.S. soil as a family. "We didn't really know what we were going to do," Wagner remembers. Koberstein tried to ease their concern, urging them to wait until the last possible moment to make the move. And on the day they were to leave, Concha was granted a work permit.

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