An Ever-Changing Path to Legal Status

Sunday, September 10, 2006; A06 ... 01142.html

Since Congress has tabled immigration reform, millions of immigrants living and working here illegally now find they have a tougher path toward legalization.

In the past, illegal immigrants have been helped by specific amnesty programs, such as a 1986 law that allowed nearly 3 million immigrants to gain legal status. In 1994, Congress passed a law that allowed people sponsored by employers or relatives to qualify for green cards, if they paid a $1,000 fine. The law was phased out in 1998 but then reinstated by Congress in December 2000. The deadline was April 30, 2001.

While employers and relatives can still sponsor immigrants for green cards, limited quotas have resulted in extremely long waits. The United States allows 5,000 low-skilled workers to be sponsored for green-card-based visas every year.

Those sponsoring an illegal worker, such as a nanny, often encounter a "cruel myth," said Crystal Williams, deputy director for programs at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Families go through the process and they discover that the kids will be grown before the nanny gets a green card."

Exceptions are made for some immigrants who come from crisis-ridden countries that can no longer absorb them. Immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Somalia and Sudan, for example, can qualify for temporary protected status if they were in the United States before a certain date. Temporary protected status is given to immigrants from certain countries who cannot return because of ongoing conflicts, environmental disasters or other conditions. The program does not lead to permanent residency.

One way to gain legal status, depicted in a movie aptly named "Green Card," is to marry a U.S. citizen. But, Williams warned, "the marriage has got to be real. If you do it on a bogus basis, it's a felony." (Twenty-two people in the Washington area were charged last week in relation to sham marriages related to immigration status.)

-- S. Mitra Kalita

© 2006 The Washington Post Company