Caught in an INS Tangle

In his native Argentina, memories are all too fresh of frightened people snatched from their beds by strangers in uniform. No less outrageous was the predawn disappearance of Luis Gabriel Gurrea from his home in Van Nuys.

Gurrea, 39, came to this country legally in 1988. But confusing new federal rules and his failure to file permanent residency documents on time vaulted the soft-spoken office manager into an ongoing nightmare with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

His story shows the potential of recently toughened immigration laws to trap and deport those who aren't illegal immigrants at all but simply caught in a bureaucratic tangle. The INS should move swiftly to reunite Gurrea with his wife, Mireya, and 6-month-old daughter, Megan, who need him desperately. It should then reexamine the way it decides whom to arrest and deport.

Around 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 15, the Gurreas were awakened by rustling sounds in their backyard. A spotlight glared into their eyes; fists pounded on the door. Immigration agents handcuffed him and took him away. Within 48 hours he was jailed and deported to Argentina.

In fact, Gurrea's only offense was failing to change his status from temporary to permanent, which a lawyer told him wasn't necessary because he was about to marry Mireya, a U.S. citizen. Although the law bars him from reentering the country for 10 years, he could be granted a waiver if it is determined that the separation would cause extreme hardship for his spouse. It is hard to imagine a clearer example.

In 1996, Mireya was brutally assaulted by a serial rapist. Due in part to her testimony, Jose Zarate was sent to prison for 157 years. But her emotional recovery has barely begun, and her husband is her only pillar of support. The waiver should be granted without delay.

Controlling immigration is a complex and daunting challenge. But in this case justice and compassion call for quick action to right a wrong.

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