Red Flag on Green Card Proposal

Published on October 24th, 2007

Immigrants criticize plan to require new cards, renewal process.

By Vanessa Colon, The Fresno Bee
October 8, 2007

Federal officials are planning to make immigrants who carry old-style green cards, which don’t expire, pay for new cards that must be renewed every 10 years.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says the old cards issued from 1979 to 1989 carry outdated photos and aren’t tamper-proof.

But some immigrants who carry them say the plan is unfair. Legal residents who thought their green cards were good forever would have to reapply and pay $370.

Some worry the criminal background check required with a new application could get them deported.

Federal officials have long deported lawful permanent residents convicted of a serious crime such as murder. But federal laws and court rulings have expanded the list of deportable offenses. Today, such crimes as domestic violence, drug possession and even shoplifting can lead to deportation.

Rosario Hernandez, an immigration attorney in Fresno, says she has received dozens of phone calls from cardholders since the proposal became public in August.

"The main question is, ‘I have a conviction. Can I be deported?’ " Hernandez said.

No one knows how many Valley immigrants carry the old green cards. Nationwide, about 750,000 immigrants still have them, federal immigration officials say.

Security concerns after 9/11 prompted the immigration agency to replace the old cards, said agency spokeswoman Marie Sebrechts.

The proposal was announced Aug. 22 and immigration officials are reviewing public comments filed in response. Federal immigration officials still could make changes in the proposed rule, and no date has been set for it to take effect.

At the heart of the controversy is the criminal background check each immigrant would undergo.

Immigration officials stepped up enforcement since the formation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Haley said ICE staff members interview foreign-born jail inmates and work with police to identify criminals who might be deportable.

But sometimes immigrants who have committed crimes haven’t been deported.

"Sometimes people just slip through the cracks," Haley said. "We are doing the very best we can."

Some immigration lawyers say federal officials hope to use the proposed rule change to catch immigrants who could be deported for breaking the law.

"Now they are checking to see if they can take it [a green card] away. … It’s to recognize people to deport them," said Camille Cook, an immigration attorney in Fresno.

Cook said immigration officials should have stuck by their decision when they granted cards with no expiration date.

"If you don’t have an expiration date, you shouldn’t have to renew it. They were issued residency without expiration dates," Cook said.

Rick Oltman, a spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization, said legal immigrants need to abide by the law if they want to remain here. The Santa Barbara-based group favors reducing legal and illegal immigration.

"It’s unfortunate for those people who broke the law. … If this allows them [immigration officials] to catch deportable people, it’s a good thing for the country. It sends a message that when you come here, you need to behave," Oltman said.

Not all convictions rate deportation. But immigrants with misdemeanor violations on their record are left in an uncomfortable limbo because the criteria are complex.

Under federal law, immigrants can be deported if they’re convicted of an "aggravated felony." Over the last two decades, the definition of an "aggravated felony" has been broadened and federal courts have interpreted it to include some misdemeanors.

Last year, 23,065 noncitizens nationwide were classified as aggravated felons and deported — more than twice as many as in 1992.

But under federal rules, green-card holders who committed a crime as a minor cannot be deported, because the criminal record does not follow them into adulthood, Cook said.

One immigrant wrestling with the uncertainty is Tony Aguiar, a 35-year-old Fresno resident.

Aguiar, a Mexican national, was issued a green card without an expiration date when he was 13. He was arrested in 1992 for drunken driving. Aguiar, a self-employed construction worker, said he has grown more mature and responsible.

"I learned my lesson. I spent four hours in jail," Aguiar said.

Drunken driving by itself is not a deportable offense as a result of a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which concluded that it is not a "crime of violence," according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Cook said green-card holders who have more than one drunken-driving conviction might face deportation, depending on the circumstances.

Most permanent residents have the right to challenge deportation, Hernandez said. Immigrants can fight their cases in Superior Court if they’re accused of a felony, or they can fight deportation in a federal immigration court, she said.

Sarah Overacker, an immigration attorney in Visalia, said immigrants also can go back to Superior Court and try to change their plea or seek a waiver from an immigration court.

Overacker said she has received about 25 calls from worried cardholders since August. Most callers are concerned about convictions for such things as drug possession, Overacker said.

"If they had any problems, they don’t want to reapply," she said.

Aguiar said he thinks the push for new cards is mainly an effort by immigration officials to collect more money. A new green card costs $370, including photographs and fingerprints.

"They are just trying to make people pay," he said. "It’s not fair."

The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559) 441-6313.

Copyright 2007 The Fresno Bee

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