- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

More than one-quarter of all immigrants winning legal residence in the United States in the past three years were once here illegally and took advantage of an expired law letting them gain legal status, according to an advocacy group's report released yesterday.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants stricter limits on immigration, said the number of people adjusting their status skyrocketed after Congress passed a law in 1994, named 245(i) after its location in the immigration code, that let them apply for a green card without having to leave the United States.
Since then, almost 1 million people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas have gained green cards. In 2000, they made up 28.3 percent of new legal residents; in 1999 they made up 25.4 percent, and in 1998 they made up 29.4 percent.
"People aren't getting the truth about 245(i) it's literally taking over our legal immigration system," said Dan Stein, executive director of the federation. "You're crowding out people who play by the rules and transforming the program into a permanent feature of the immigration system."
A spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service declined to comment on the report, but groups who favor higher immigration levels said the report's numbers simply reflect the amount of immigration.
"The problem is that we have too few legal immigrant visas, that our legal immigration levels are overly restricted and do not match up to the reality of immigration into this country," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
But Mr. Stein blamed the generosity of 245(i) and other immigration laws for those high levels in the first place.
"Apparently our elected officials in Washington see no correlation between giving one-quarter of all legal immigration slots to people who came here illegally, and other people making the decision to come here illegally," he said.
There have been several windows for people to apply under 245(i), with the most recent one expiring in April 2001.
President Bush and Democratic leaders have pushed to allow a new round of applications, but they have been unable to agree on a version with House Republican leaders.
"The reality is that people come here, both legally and illegally, they work hard, and as many as can want to stay here permanently because they get married, because they love America," Mr. Sharry said.
The applicants still have to wait for their number to come up before obtaining a green card, and they are still subject to deportation until then. But such expulsions are rare, and immigration opponents thus deem 245(i) an amnesty and a threat to border security.
Applicants are subject to a background check by U.S. law enforcement, rather than by overseas embassies and consulates, who would perform the checks if the person was applying from his home country.
The two sides of the debate disagree over which is the more effective check. Immigration opponents say overseas embassies are more thorough and have better access to information in someone's home country, while proponents say checks performed here work better.
"Giving someone a green card who's been living in our community for a number of years is a much surer bet than relying on background checks in a foreign land. These people have been tried out; they're tried-and-tested immigrants," Mr. Sharry said.
But Mr. Stein said that conducting background checks here requires relying on an agency that lawmakers have agreed must be dismantled.
Mr. Bush and Congress "excoriate the INS for its malfeasance in administering and enforcing our immigration laws but trust the same incompetent agency to run background checks on about 150,000 people a year, about whom all that is known for certain is at some point they broke our laws," he said.
Meanwhile, one lawmaker wants to know what the INS is doing with the money it raised from the $1,000 fine.
Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., Virginia independent, sent a letter to the INS yesterday asking for an account of what could be almost $1 billion collected during the past six years, if most of those applying for adjusted status were subject to the fine.
Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesman, said the agency will review Mr. Goode's request and "provide full cooperation in whatever's being asked for."

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