- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2001

County clerks and civil magistrates in the metropolitan area yesterday scurried to process marriage licenses as scores of undocumented immigrants rushed to wed ahead of the midnight expiration of a provision that smoothes the path to citizenship for married aliens.
In Arlington County, Va., where there is no waiting period for a marriage license, the court clerks office was working at a rapid pace, issuing licenses and sending applicants off to civil magistrates. Minutes later, couples returned as husband and wife, clerks notarized their paperwork and pointed them a half-mile down the road to the regional headquarters of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Gerald E. Williams, one of three civil magistrates within two blocks of the court clerks office, performed 17 ceremonies yesterday.
"I had a great deal of fun doing it," he said. Knowing the couples were heading from the altar to the INS didnt jade him one bit. "The law is for everybody, and the law says if you meet certain requirements by a certain date you can stay here."
The Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act, signed by President Clinton before he left office, reinstated a provision in effect from 1994 to 1998 that allowed immigrants to apply for legal status without having to go to the U.S. consulate in their home country. The INS estimates 640,000 immigrants applied for visas during the four months the law was in place.
To apply for a visa, immigrants had to pay $225 in application fees and a $1,000 fine for entering the country illegally. Immigrants also had to be sponsored and have a close relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
The laws on sponsorship are vague, and marriage to a U.S. citizen is often the easiest route. Advocates and lawyers say they have been advising immigrants in relationships to get married or move up wedding dates so they can take advantage of the law. As a result, requests for marriage licenses have surged in many areas of the country.
The 17 waiting-room seats in the sterile office of the Arlington County court clerk were full, and people jammed the counters, huddling over marriage applications. They came in groups of anywhere from two to 10, some with brothers and sisters, some with friends, some with their children.
Sara Ayestas didnt care about the imposed INS deadline: She was just happy to be getting married. The Alexandria, Va., resident wed her boyfriend, Miguel Angel Rodriguez Arios, an immigrant from El Salvador, yesterday afternoon before rushing over to INS headquarters. "Wed still be getting married anyway," she said, though Mr. Arios conceded to a case of cold feet.The two had been dating for about a year and a half.
For the most part, things ran smoothly in the clerks office. Assistant court clerk Aida Duncan said the office usually issues about 15 licenses a day, but by lunch they had distributed 25. On Friday, the office issued 62. She said the number of licenses issued this year to date swelled from 1,193 last year to 2,037 so far this year.
"After all this, I think I need to go on vacation," she said.
INS offices, like the regional office in Arlington, planned to stay open until midnight last night processing applications.


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