Rejection Slips

The INS defends our borders and deports immigrant criminals. Sometimes, though, in its zeal, it tosses out perfectly law-abiding, hardworking people too.

Rehana is stuck. If the rules were not so austere, she would not be banned from traveling. But if Houston were not so slow to begin with, she already would have her green card and could see her mother one last time.

"I just want to visit my mom for two months," she says. "I have not seen her in ten years."

Nicole Morrison believes an INS office in another city would have been more understanding of Fernando's situation.
Deron Neblett
Nicole Morrison believes an INS office in another city would have been more understanding of Fernando's situation.

Nicole Morrison opened the door to the clerk's office and signaled to Fernando: a thumbs-up. Disaster had been averted. Luckily the judge who had expected them at nine happened to be in his office. When Morrison explained the mix-up in her order, the judge rescinded Fernando's deportation order and reset the case for May.

"I'm going to win this for you, Fernando," she had told him earlier with a confident pat. But she wondered why they were in this situation in the first place.

"Given their limited resources, why don't they go after the person who has committed crimes, who smuggled aliens?" she says. "Why go after a person in an occupational shortage married to a permanent resident with citizen children? The only reason I can see for doing this is being vindictive."

Melero-Chami says she cannot talk about Fernando's case, but that the INS tries to handle its green card applications efficiently. With 45,000 people in the Houston area waiting on green cards, speeding up the process is a top priority, she says. The Houston district office plans to hire 23 new officers and 23 staff members this year, which hopefully will shave a year off the processing time by October.

But that still doesn't meet Congress's mandate to process green cards within six months. Congress recently approved a bill that called on the INS to eliminate its processing backlog by the end of 2001.

Nationally, a movement to split the agency in two has gained popularity. After all, the INS has conflicting goals, says Houston immigration attorney Elaine Morley. On the one hand, it tries to deport people; on the other hand, it provides benefits.

"Those two concepts don't work together, and what ends up happening is you have people in customer service who really, in their frame of reference and mentality, are very enforcement-oriented and think their mandate is to look for and find reasons to remove people from this country."

That kind of attitude has frustrated attorneys like Salvador Colon. "The INS is not trying to solve problems quickly," he says. "Their attitude is like what the IRS used to have. If you're there in the morning, all you hear is 'no.' "

Colon is appealing a case in which the INS denied his client permanent residency, claiming that her marriage is a sham. The woman, who is from Romania, came to the United States with her first husband five years ago, then divorced. He was deported, and she remarried a naturalized citizen. Now the INS claims she is still living with her first husband even though they deported him years ago.

"The whole thing boils down to she's white and he's black," Colon says of the married couple. "That's what they don't believe."

Meanwhile, Fernando and Marie must wait another four months for Fernando's day in court. In the worst-case scenario, Fernando will be deported. Morrison doesn't think that will happen, because judges usually give the option of voluntary departure. But if it does, Fernando could wait for Marie to become a naturalized citizen and she could petition for his green card. If he is given voluntary departure, he can apply for a visa through the American consulate in the Philippines. But that could take a year. Either way, he would be separated from his family.

And that seems very unfair, Marie says. Recently she and Fernando ran into the two other physical therapists who came to Tennessee with Fernando and then worked with him at Phil-Am. And they both already have green cards.

"My kids can apply for me," Fernando jokes. They are American citizens, but a long way from 21, the minimum age to petition for relatives.

Fernando and Marie try not to let the case consume them, though it hovers in the background of their daily lives. They have work to do and church to attend and diapers to change. Friends at church pray for them, Fernando says, but they can't do much more than wait and see.

"It's something that we just pray about," Fernando says. "We don't really think about it every day."

Not until Morrison calls, reminding him that his American dream is not yet in his grasp, and that ultimately, in spite of his hard work, this most precious thing is not up to him.

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