Thousands of Immigrants Race to Say 'I Do' So They Can Say 'We Stay'

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tens of thousands of couples across the country are racing to get hitched before April 30, motivated by an obscure provision of federal law that gives illegal immigrants an easier path to lawful status if they marry by then.

The law inadvertently sent marriage rates soaring, with increases of 50% to 300% reported this year in such immigrant-rich cities as Los Angeles, Houston and New York.

"It's not love anymore. It's getting right with God and the law," said Hugo Martinez, 31, as he stood in line Wednesday at the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office with his bride-to-be, Maria Flores, 32. The two have five daughters.

The new law, passed in the waning days of the Clinton administration, created a host of measures to help immigrants and their loved ones obtain legal status. Critics say it also created an incentive for marriage fraud. A key aspect allows an immigrant to seek residency while remaining in the United States--but only if married to a citizen or a legal resident (or closely related to one) and only if an application is submitted by April 30.

After that date, applicants will have to return to their native countries to process their paperwork--a requirement that could keep them separated from loved ones as long as 10 years.

New York Deputy City Clerk Raymond Teatum said the city has deployed extra security to handle the long lines. Demand for marriage licenses in Manhattan this year, he said, has jumped from 100 a day to more than 300.

"It's amazing how love comes in," he joked. "It's definitely the immigration [law]."

In Houston, the 2,811 marriage licenses filed in Harris County in January marked a 58% increase over the same month last year. Officials attribute the gain to the immigration law.

"We've been swamped," spokeswoman Kathryn J. Kay said from the clerk's office in Houston.

Cook County, Ill., officials credit the new law with triggering a 20% increase in marriage licenses for the Chicago area.

In Los Angeles County, the registrar-recorder's office has issued 12,997 marriage licenses during January and February, a 59% increase over the same period last year.

"It's been crazy. They are running in," said Arnoldo Dheming, the minister at Elvira's Wedding Chapel on Broadway, the street in downtown Los Angeles where 9% of all nuptials in the county take place.

In Orange and Ventura counties, officials report hikes this year of more than 40%.

"It isn't just an outbreak of romance," said Robert Foss, legal director at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles. Getting married now, he said, "prevents a loved one from having to leave the country."

Many of the newlyweds are couples like Ramiro Ruiz and Rosalia Viveros of Santa Ana, who have been together for years.

As they waited in line Wednesday at Santa Ana's Old Courthouse, they said the new law gave them an extra push to get married and finally resolve Viveros' illegal status.

"We've been together for a long time," said Ruiz, 34, who emigrated from the Mexican state of Michoacan 18 years ago. "It was time."

Waiting for a civil commissioner to conduct the five-minute ceremony, the couple's 8-year-old son, Ramiro Jr., said he begged his parents to formalize their relationship "so they don't get separated."

At the Los Angeles County registrar's office in Norwalk, many of the couples waiting in line for marriage licenses Wednesday said they were there to beat the April 30 deadline.

"I'm in a hurry. I have to get back to work. What do I have to do to get married?" asked a flustered Sergio Madrid when he finally reached the information counter.

Madrid, who has two children, said he hopes to be married by the end of the week. "It's something I should have done a long time ago," he said.

Downey resident Jose Donado nodded at his wife-to-be, Virginia Rabanales, as they filled out marriage forms. "April 30th is the deadline for us to get married, or she'll have to leave California," Donado said.

It is not just the new law that is motivating the couple. "Hey, we're in love," he said.

"But I will also feel more secure," Rabanales added.

Critics say the new law encourages phony marriages.

"There is a lot of fraud going on, and people are rushing to take advantage of this window," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce immigration.

INS authorities say that in past cases citizens or legal residents were paid $10,000 or more to stage fraudulent weddings. Officials warn that all marriages in which immigration benefits are involved may be subject to investigation for as long as two years after the vows.

"We cannot underscore the warning that it's not worth the risk involved in attempting a fraudulent marriage," said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman in Washington, D.C.

Changes in the complex arena of immigration law have triggered marriage surges before. In early 1997, many rushed to take vows in California and New York in the mistaken belief that marriage would shield them from deportation.

This time, even INS officials are urging people to expedite their unions if one person in a couple is living here illegally.

"If you're planning on getting married anyway this year, you may just want to go ahead and have the civil ceremony before April 30," said Strassberger, the INS spokesman. "You can have your formal June wedding anyway."

This latest rush to the altar is the indirect result of a compromise brokered by the Clinton administration and congressional leaders late last year. The statute included a four-month restoration of Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, for years a hotly debated provision in Congress and the ethnic press.

The section allows some illegal immigrants to apply for legal status without leaving the country--but only if they pay a $1,000 penalty and have a close family member or employer willing to sponsor them. The sponsoring relative must be a U.S. citizen or holder of a green card, which gives permission to live and work in the United States.

The right to fill out the forms in the United States is crucial for these applicants. Leaving the country to complete the paperwork could force them to remain abroad for as long as 10 years under separate immigration laws passed in 1996.

The Clinton administration pushed for a permanent restoration of the section, but Republican lawmakers balked. Congress agreed to restore Section 245(i) until April 30. As that deadline approaches, lawmakers are certain to push for an extension.

Even immigrants who file petitions by April 30 may still have to wait years for legal residency to be considered.

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Times staff writer Louis Sahagun and researcher Maloy Moore and community news reporter Katie Cooper in Ventura contributed to this story.

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