Anti-Immigrant Bills Put Young Woman and Family in Limbo


Rosaura Rincon has lived legally most of her 21 years in the rolling hills of Northern California's wine country. She has two young sons who are U.S. citizens.

Her mother is a legal immigrant who has a green card, a permit to live and work in the United States.

But Rosaura Rincon, who had dreams of joining the California Highway Patrol, is faced with possible deportation to Mexico.

Why? She recently became an adult.

Rosaura doesn't know much about the fine print of U.S. immigration policy. She simply shrugs when asked about California's Proposition 187, the measure under challenge in federal court that restricts government aid, education and health care to illegal immigrants.

Her questions reflect a more personal predicament.

"How am I going to go back to Mexico?" asked Rincon, who has lived in the United States since she was 7. "I've made my life here."

As she spoke, she stared blankly at a television that blared a newscast in Spanish. She teetered on the edge of the couch in her parents' living room, which doubles as her bedroom.

"She's really in limbo right now," said Camille Cook, a San Francisco immigration attorney who has been trying to help Rincon stay with her family, all of whom are legal residents.

On her 21st birthday in January, Rincon entered an immigration classification that bills pending in Congress are aiming to quash. She is an adult child of a legal immigrant. The proposed bills would eliminate siblings and other extended family members from the long-standing "family reunification" policy. That means Rincon could be deported.

Sponsored by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill, known as the Immigration in the National Interest Act, is part of an immigration reform movement that has come to the forefront in Congress.

For Rincon, the possibility of being deported becomes all the more difficult for her since her sons, Mark, 4, and Ritchie, 3, are U.S. citizens.

"I don't get child support. But I'm not going to welfare asking for money," said Rincon, a single mother who works as a waitress. "I'm trying to make it with the money I get from my job."

Delays, caused by problems ranging from the recent federal shutdowns to her marriage to an undocumented Mexican immigrant--they're now divorced--kept her from receiving a green card as a 20-year-old.

As an adult child, she faces an average waiting time of about five years for a green card, though Congress soon may make that moot.

The current bills, which shift the focus from family reunification to attracting skilled workers, cuts the legal immigrant category by about 30%.

"It's quite radical. It's not just conservative," said Katherine Brady, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.

In the 1980s, the United States admitted an average of about 700,000 legal immigrants each year. That's more than twice the number admitted in the 1970s and 14 times the number in the 1930s, when the Great Depression bolted U.S. doors as never before in this century.

In 1994, according to the most recent figures available, about 800,000 legal immigrants settled permanently in the United States, along with about 300,000 illegal immigrants.

Allen Kay, a spokesman for Rep. Smith, says the current legislation merely reestablishes legal immigrant numbers at 700,000 a year through the year 2001.

"You have to draw the line somewhere," Kay said. He pointed out that spouses and children who are not adults would move up in priority if other family members are eliminated.

"We have gotten off track," Kay said. "There seem to be arguments as if there is a right to immigrate to the United States--and it's not."

Complaints about the proposed reforms have been particularly strong from the West Coast, Kay said. California, which has 6.5 million foreign-born residents, would be hard hit.

Brady said the latest round of bills are part of a 40-year cycle of anti-immigrant sentiment that follows economic hard times.

That sentiment has turned to legislation, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to later bills aimed at Japanese, Eastern European and finally Mexican immigrants, she said.

"Very few people would assert that legal immigration is a problem in the U.S.," Brady said. "I would assert that immigrants--especially those who come to stay with family--contribute much more to the economy than they take away."

Rincon's story, she said, is a common one.

"There are thousands and thousands of cases just like that," Brady said. "It's really heartbreaking."

She told the story of 2,000 Chinese immigrants from California who recently wrote letters to Congress, including photos of themselves and the siblings and other extended relatives that they hoped to bring to the United States. Some of them have been waiting as long as 10 years to be reunited.

Kay conceded that the choices are difficult. But he and other proponents of immigration reform offer little sympathy.

"That person chose to separate themselves from his or her family," Kay said.

The sentiment in Washington to rein in immigration numbers crosses party lines.

Take, for example, the recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by Barbara Jordan, the late Democratic congresswoman from Texas, appointed by the Clinton administration. The commission's recommendations to the president included cutting the number of visas for extended family members by 20%.

Rincon, who was born in the dusty farmlands of the Mexican state of Michoacan, stops short of saying that she has a right to stay in this country. But she cannot imagine living anywhere else.

"I was raised in kind of the American way, I guess," she said softly.

Having dropped out of high school after the 10th grade, she had hoped to return for her diploma and then attend Napa Valley College. She wanted to join the California Highway Patrol.

But all of that requires a green card, she said.

"I guess through the years I've had some bad luck," she said.

If she is deported, Rincon says, her sons would stay in this country. But her mother, Altagracia, a housecleaner who has had her green card since 1986, says that she would return to Mexico with her daughter.

"She doesn't have anyone there. All her family is here," she said in Spanish. "I'm a mother. I do what I can for my six children. It's all I can do."

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