Under fire from Latino groups and Congress, the Bush Administration on Friday liberalized an immigration policy to allow close relatives of legalized aliens to remain in the country while they wait to qualify for permanent residence.
The new "family fairness" policy affects tens of thousands of spouses and children--more than half living in California--who faced possible deportation because they entered the country after a 1982 cutoff on amnesty for illegal aliens. The new policy takes effect Feb. 14.
Gene McNary, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, scrapped a set of vague, 3-year-old guidelines that he said were interpreted narrowly by regional officials oriented toward deportation and broadly by those inclined to make humanitarian choices.
"Many thousands who may be eligible for benefits were not applying because of confusion and fear they might be deported if they came forward," McNary said at a news conference.
In his new directive to field offices, McNary expanded the number of family members eligible for relief from deportation, authorized them to obtain work permits and made it clear that the policy should be implemented in "a consistent and humanitarian manner."
A Latino civil rights group and two lawmakers who were advocating similar action praised the new policy. Another Latino group was less enthusiastic, while an organization that favors tighter immigration restrictions harshly assailed the change.
"Commissioner McNary deserves credit for acting quickly to avert the separation of hundreds--and potentially tens of thousands--of innocent children and spouses of newly legalized persons," said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. "This may be a turning point for INS."
Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R. I.), who last year won Senate approval of an amendment blocking deportations that split families, was "very, very pleased" with McNary's directive, an aide said.
Also applauding the move was Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), the sponsor of related legislation.
"After the hypocritical and mean-spirited years of (former INS Commissioner) Alan Nelson's approach to this issue, I think it's a real breath of fresh air," Berman said.
The previous INS guidelines had drawn repeated criticism from Latino organizations and members of Congress, and at least one advocacy group said that the changes do not go far enough to address the problems faced by relatives of legal aliens.
Francisco Garcia of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund called the new policy "just interim relief for families who face separation." He said that "the only positive thing" was work authorization for affected family members.
McNary's action was attacked as "over-broad, arbitrary, capricious and illegal" by Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Stein noted that the 3 million illegal aliens who have applied for amnesty are prohibited from receiving federal cash assistance for years. But, he asserted, the spouses and children who are ineligible for amnesty are able under McNary's new policy to receive "the full range of federal entitlements," such as Social Security. "That's not fair," he said.
Asked about Stein's assertion, McNary said: "We believe the fact they'll have work permits will more than cover any benefit drain on the community or state."
McNary's directive provides a renewable, one-year shield against deportation to spouses and children under 18 who can establish that they have been living in the United States with a legal alien family member since Nov. 6, 1986, and have not been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors in this country.
The policy will enable families to stay together while applications for permanent visas wind through a 10-year bureaucratic maze.
Under the old policy, children, but not spouses, of newly legalized aliens were eligible for such relief. No work authorization was provided. And regional INS directors had wide latitude to determine whether "humanitarian circumstances" were "compelling" enough to provide relief.
In a Jan. 17 letter to Assistant INS Commissioner Janet M. Charney, La Raza's Munoz charged that INS officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco had decided "not to implement Family Fairness" while the district director in Chicago "has determined that keeping spouses together or allowing them to remain with their minor children fall within the realm of humanitarian concerns."
In Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Dallas, she added, a narrow interpretation of policy "has resulted in the separation of spouses and the placing of young children of legalized parents in deportation proceedings."
About 3.1 million people have applied for amnesty, 55% of them living in California. Slightly more than half the California applicants live in the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area.
The number of families affected by the new policy could not be determined Friday. But a 1988 La Raza study of legalization applicants found that as many as 47% had family members in the United States who did not qualify for amnesty.