The Hitch

Matrimonial safe haven hits Harris County. But the INS honeymoon ends with April.

June may be the traditional month for weddings. But that's a luxury that can't wait for some Houstonians: illegal immigrants eager to take advantage of an obscure law. Their rush to the altar could be linked to continued residency as well as romance.

Kathryn Kay, the county clerk's supervisor of marriage licenses, says she's swamped with applications, which were up over 50 percent in January and February over the same period last year.

It isn't just wedding planners seeing the results of the run on licenses. Nelson Reyes, executive director of Houston's Central American Refugee Center, says the number of people arriving at his office every day asking for guidance has more than tripled in recent months. And Karen Feldman, an immigration lawyer with the firm of Tindall & Foster, agrees: "Yes, a huge boost in business these days."

The impetus for immigrants to get hitched stems from a federal statute that became effective December 21, in the dying days of the Clinton administration. Known as the LIFE (Legal Immigration Family Equity) Act, it provides a brief window of opportunity for immigrants who either entered the country illegally or violated their status while here. They can apply for residency without incurring the sometimes drastic penalties that would have applied before the law -- or after the law's deadline of April 30.

A 1996 statute had required that illegal immigrants applying for permanent residency return to their home country to acquire their visas when they finally become available. That application process often took as long as seven years. The catch was that such applicants -- as punishment for being in the United States illegally -- were subject to bans of three to ten years on returning to this country.

"It's a big deal," says Feldman. "Because we have a lot of people who have been here for a long time, married a U.S. citizen, have children and have established lives here. And if they leave the U.S. to get their residency, they're not coming back."

The LIFE Act does not provide amnesty per se. But it does allow illegals to apply for and eventually receive permanent residency without leaving the country if their application is sponsored by an employer, parent, adult child or spouse. And if the application is made by the April 30 deadline.

Since wedlock is the only one of those qualifying relationships that can be created on short notice, there's been a noticeable spike in marriage license applications since the beginning of the year in immigrant-rich cities. Harris County applications shot up to more than 2,800 in January. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported increases of 50 to 300 percent in cities including Los Angeles, New York City and Houston.

With those numbers comes suspicion of marriage fraud. However, Feldman -- while acknowledging that some small percentage will doubtless attempt marriages of convenience for the sake of a green card -- says that route doesn't make much sense.

"At least in Houston, you wait four years before [the Immigration and Naturalization Service] even calls you in to an interview," she says. "So you still have to be married to that person and demonstrate over four years how everything is joint, you have joint checking accounts, you have a joint address. It takes too long to do it just for that reason."

Never mind marriage fraud penalties that include a permanent ban on entry to the United States.

Feldman adds, "I haven't seen anyone that's just gotten married. All the clients that have come in to see me this time have been people who've already been married and just never could do anything about it before" without risking the ten-year penalty.

INS spokeswoman Mariela Melero-Chami cautions that fraudulent marriages constitute a felony. Still, she says, "There are a lot of very legitimate marriages that I'm sure are going to have the timetables for the marriage moved forward a little bit" to meet the deadline.

The most likely arena of abuse, says the refugee center's Reyes, is with unscrupulous immigration attorneys who may take advantage of hurried clients trying to navigate the complex tangle of INS regulations.

"It's overwhelming, all the organizations that are helping now, trying to meet all the demand that is in the community," he says. "There are a lot of people here that need to submit their applications before April 30. We don't have enough resources."

That fact opens the door to immigration "advisers" who can overcharge harried applicants for simple form-filling, or just take a client's money and run, with potentially disastrous results, including deportation.

The Central American Refugee Center, in collaboration with HISD and the INS, is holding a series of community forums to provide information and advice. The next meeting is planned for Saturday, March 31, at Milby High School. Reyes and others advocate an extension of the April 30 deadline.

"The three months that they have given to the community, it was a good step, a positive step," says Reyes. "But it would be good if they can give more time. Because what happens when there is a deadline and there are a lot of people," he says, "is you're going to see a lot of fraud, people taking advantage of the community."

Meanwhile, the marriage mill churns onward. Even Ted Kipperman, chaplain and proprietor of a pawn shop on Bellfort -- the only place in Houston, he likes to say, where you can get married and buy a gun at the same time -- has noticed an upswing. He's just not sure how much of it to attribute to the LIFE Act.

"You always see more people coming in when you get close to April," he says. "Tax time, you know."

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