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Compassion and the INS

The toughest issue raised under the new immigration law that took effect earlier this month is what U.S. immigration officials should do when members of a family do not all have the same rights to stay in this country.

For example, a father and mother who came to the United States before Jan. 1, 1982, the legalization, or “amnesty,” date decreed by Congress, can stay in this country, but the children cannot if they came later. A similar dilemma faces families whose relatives temporarily left the United States for longer than the new law allows--say, a family whose son stayed with grandparents in Mexico for more than six months.

These problems were created by Congress, which frankly avoided the emotional and complex issue of family reunification when it enacted the new immigration law last year. Legislators were deliberately vague in writing those sections, leaving decisions on particular family problems to the discretion of officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Eventually Congress must face up to this question, and it should be as generous as possible in drawing up guidelines for family reunification. Rep. Peter J. Rodino (D-N.J.), one of the principal authors of the law, used to take great pride in his reputation as an advocate for making family reunification one of the main tenets of U.S. immigration law. He should take the lead in amending the new law.

In the meantime, and to their credit, some INS officials are using their discretionary authority to keep family units whole even when the new law might seem to require that they be torn apart. In this regard, the INS district office in Chicago is much more liberal than the agency’s Los Angeles office, according to a recent survey by Times staff writer Marita Hernandez. That is most unfortunate, because Los Angeles probably has the biggest illegal immigrant population in the nation, and the new law will fail or succeed largely depending on what happens here.

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The legalization program is off to a smooth and positive start, but also a slow one. Immigration specialists suggest that this is because many illegal immigrants are holding back to see how the new law affects their friends and relatives who have come out of hiding. If they find that families are being torn apart for bureaucratic reasons, many will stay in hiding. By being generous and flexible in keeping families together, INS officials will help assure that the new law works as well as possible. The Los Angeles INS office should take the lead in that regard.


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