Illegal immigrants had a chance this year to apply for a visa without returning home - as long as they did it before midnight last night.
An estimated 640,000 immigrants could apply under the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act, which took effect in December.
Immigration and Naturalization Service centers have been flooded with visitors in the past weeks, as immigrants scramble to meet the deadline. "We're getting long lines at the district offices," says Elaine Komas, an INS spokeswoman. Over a three-month period, she says, the agency has handled more than 1 million calls per month, 33 percent more than is typical.
Visas allow immigrants to stay in the country, and reserve a place for them to later apply for a green card and permanent legal residency. To apply for a visa, an immigrant must be sponsored and have a close relative who is a US citizen or permanent resident. The immigrant also pays several fees and a $1,000 fine for entering the country illegally.
Since its inception, the visa-application law has touched off a frenzy in the immigrant community. Initially some believed the law was a general amnesty, leading them to be victimized by profiteers.
The rules governing who may sponsor whom are complex. In certain cases, relatives may sponsor applicants; in some cases employers may do so - but only after proving that a job is legitimate and there is a shortage of American workers to fill it.
Marriage to a US citizen is often the easiest route. Advocates and attorneys say they have been advising immigrants in relationships to get married or move up wedding dates so they can take advantage of the law. As a result, requests for marriage licenses have surged in many areas of the country.
Marisol, an illegal immigrant who has lived in Washington for eight years and did not want to give her last name, was among those seeking an application at the INS office in Arlington, Va., last week. "This is going to give us the opportunity to be residents here and not have to leave our children," she said as she held her squirming toddler.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor