- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants avoided deportation last weekend as the Clinton administration granted them extra time to apply to stay in the United States under an amnesty program passed by Congress in 1997 and 1998.

Administration officials say it took an unexpectedly long time for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to draw up regulations to allow these immigrants to apply for amnesty. The rules were published March 24, only seven days before the deadline imposed by Congress, so immigrants mostly Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans should not be deported while Congress considers extending the deadline.

"It's justice … effectively, the delay of the INS has terminated their rights, so we are proposing the deadline be extended to March 24, 2001," said Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, who supports the reprieve and is sponsoring a bill to extend the deadline.

The decision not to deport the immigrants does not apply to Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy at the center of an emotional international custody battle. He arrived in the United States long after Congress passed the amnesty law and is not eligible unless Congress itself changes the law on his behalf.

But some lawmakers say the administration should extend the same courtesy to Elian, granting him a reprieve while courts and Congress sort out his status.

"This child's fate should be decided in a family court," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, said yesterday. "INS has really singled out this child for exceptional treatment."

The boy was rescued from the sea in November after a shipwreck in which his mother died while trying to make it to the United States.

Since then, his relatives in Miami have argued to keep him in the United States, while his father and Cuban President Fidel Castro have demanded his return to Cuba.

The Clinton administration has sided so far with Elian's father and Mr. Castro and has been pressing the Miami family to turn over the boy.

INS officials say the amnesty program has nothing to do with Elian's case. Mr. Graham agrees, saying the amnesty "is a completely different case" from Elian's.

INS spokesman Dan Kane said the agency will begin deportation proceedings against illegal Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who have not applied for amnesty. But the INS "will not take the final step" of ejecting them from the country while Congress considers an extension.

He said the delay in creating the regulations for the eligible Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans was caused by delays in collecting comments on the regulations from other interested parts of the government.

"The INS made every effort to expedite the process," he said. "This was the best effort we could make."

Critics of the agency say the delay and the administration's agreement not to deport the immigrants is just another example of halfhearted enforcement by the INS.

"These sorts of announcements are not just illegal, they erode public confidence," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It takes away from the moral base of the immigration laws."

Supporters of Mr. Graham's bill say they are confident the Senate will agree to extend the deadline because key Republican leaders are supportive. Prospects in the House are less certain.

Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with immigration policy, says he is in no mood to grant an extension to the illegal immigrants.

"Common sense says that if Americans can file their tax returns between January and April 17, then Haitians should be able to file the two-page amnesty applications in the generous year-and-a-half provided for in the law," he said in a written statement.

• Capitol Hill bureau chief Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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