For a first-time visitor of Anglo or African ancestry, the experience of being a stranger in one's own country can be overwhelming. This is Valley Boulevard, after all-a major artery through Los Angeles, the city that represents the very essence of America as far as filmgoers around the world are concerned. Yet a drive down the boulevard can leave some wondering which side of the Pacific they're on. On a Saturday night in November the sidewalks are filled with families and groups of teenagers of Asian descent. Other than the occasional single word such as "Books" or "Dentist," the signs are written in Chinese. Four bookstores within a two-mile stretch carry nothing for sale in English. Even such a popular title as The English Patient is recognizable only by its cover art. And in several huge grocery stores, the live eels in the seafood department, together with the soft-shell turtles as big as dinner plates that gaze up from their coolers in the meat market, complete the impression that one has been transported to a different country.
The scene shifts dramatically as Valley Boulevard winds its way south into El Monte. Convenience stores are piled high with cases of Spanish-labeled soft drinks. Magazine racks are filled with Spanish editions of the Enquirer and Cosmopolitan. And instead of stylish new sport-utility vehicles, the streets are dominated by relics from an age when "Detroit iron" was a nickname Americans used with pride. Statistically, these Hispanic immigrants are much less likely than their Asian neighbors to be educated and affluent.
But for some long-time Americans, both immigrant groups cause concern. It isn't about income or education. Rather, the sense of being a stranger in one's own country helps to explain why three years ago 59 percent of California's voters approved Proposition 187. Though currently bogged down in court challenges, the so-called "Save Our State" initiative seeks to deny state-paid welfare and educational benefits to undocumented foreigners of all ethnic backgrounds.
Spurred in part by California's concern about illegal immigrants, Congress has moved recently to crack down on immigration throughout the country. Sweeping new laws passed in 1996 aimed to beef up border patrols and to deny food stamps and other public assistance to new arrivals. The one bright spot for foreigners who wanted to make their way in the United States legally: Section 245(i), a provision in the law that allowed illegal immigrants to remain in the country while they applied for legal resident status (the so-called "green card"). Since many legal immigrants had family members living with them illegally, 245(i) was intended as an offer of grace, a way to keep families together while they attempted to navigate through the often-byzantine green-card process.
But the government's grace is not without limits. Just before Thanksgiving, Congress voted to end the grace period effective January 14. As of that date, any immigrant in the United States illegally will have to return home to file a green-card request with the American consulate there. Most of the time, that will mean the loss of a job in the States. Often, the consequences will be even more serious: Because of tough penalties in the 1996 law, any foreigner who stayed in the United States illegally for six months will not be allowed to legally re-enter the country for at least three years. Those who broke the law for longer than six months could be barred from re-entry for up to 10 years-or even, theoretically, for life.
To critics, that penalty is both draconian and counterproductive, since it breaks up hard-working immigrant families. They point out that under Section 245(i), only legal residents could sponsor green-card applications for their illegal family members. That means that the law was encouraging family cohesiveness among immigrants who had already shown a willingness to work hard, pay taxes, and eventually, perhaps, gain citizenship.
Pablo Pachalian, pastor of the United Hispanic Church in the Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Park, is one of those critics. Pastor Pachalian knows about the hardships of immigration. Born in Uruguay to parents who were themselves immigrants from Armenia, he has served in various Baptist churches for 37 years, first in Uruguay, then Argentina, and, for the last seven years, in Los Angeles. But after a lifetime of immigration and ministry to immigrants, he argues that only in America has he experienced policies that break up families and increase poverty among those who remain.
Pastor Pachalian's limited English forces him to speak through an interpreter. But frustration shows on his face as he describes the impact of immigration law on the community in which he ministers. At least 20 of the 100 or so members of Pastor Pachalian's small church are in the country illegally. But that, he says, is an unusually low figure because his church is made up primarily of people from South America. In churches with members primarily from Mexico and Central America, half the members are often in the country illegally.
Some Hispanic immigrants have entered the country illegally, Pastor Pachalian concedes, because they did not want to wait for a visa application to be processed or because they knew they would not qualify. But many others became illegal after originally entering with the blessing of the government. A student, for instance, can become illegal if he fails to sign up for enough credit hours, while a worker who has been transferred to a different city can run afoul of the law.
Such temporary violations are known as "lapse of status" violations, and they are precisely the kind of problem that Congress had in mind when it created the shelter of Section 245(i). Without that shelter, immigrants would again find themselves at the mercy of an immigration bureaucracy so backed up that some case files have not been processed for as many as five to 10 years. And during the years while a file is slowly being processed, it is not unusual for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to contradict its previous decisions, once again creating illegal immigrants.
Pastor Pachalian was himself the victim of such a mix-up. He entered the United States with permission, having already been called as pastor of United Hispanic Church. But after 31/2 years he had not been granted permanent status. Suddenly, the INS declared he was working without a permit and was in the country illegally. Nor did it back off when he showed them his copy of the permit he had obtained nearly four years earlier. In desperation he hired a lawyer, a specialist in religion-based immigration difficulties, who convinced the INS to drop the original application and start a new process. Finally, after five years and $6,000 in extra costs, Pastor Pachalian became a legal resident alien.
Cases like Pastor Pachalian's represent a dilemma for the Republican Party. Although anti-immigrant lawmakers inevitably are labeled racist, they insist the issue is one of law and order, not race. By definition, after all, the immigrants taking last-minute advantage of Section 245(i) have broken the law by remaining in this country, whatever their reasons may be. By overlooking the offense, critics charge, America sends the message that immigration laws aren't taken seriously and that more illegals should test their luck with the spotty enforcement procedures. Such a message may be the reason that up to 1 million immigrants are already in California illegally, putting a strain on public services and trying the patience of law-abiding residents.
But many of those immigrants will eventually become American citizens, and they are likely to punish at the polls those politicians who got in the way of their American dream. In California alone, INS now faces a backlog of 400,000 applications for naturalization-a potential new voting bloc that the GOP cannot ignore. Moreover, Hispanics and Asians both tend to be pro-business and pro-family, two bedrock principles of the Republican Party. That may help to explain why Republicans in Congress twice voted to extend the deadline for filing under the provisions of Section 245(i) before finally allowing it to expire last week.
To Pastor Pachalian, such political considerations may offer some hope, but he sees a deeper, biblical issue at stake as well. He wants to see evangelical leaders ponder the implications of the principle found in Exodus 12:49 that "the same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you."Some Christians in Southern California are. Robert Sowell, director of the Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association, reports that his association recently started to put together a task force on immigration. But the task force, he acknowledges, will face an uphill battle because within the region's 300 Southern Baptist congregations, "you can find a full range of opinions on immigration." Officially, his association's stated policy is that immigration is a great opportunity to reach people for Christ from many nations. But sometimes, he says, "we don't feel in control" when faced with large numbers of immigrants.
Pastor Pachalian would like to see the Southern Baptists' official position become the heartfelt belief of American Christendom. He believes the gospel of Jesus Christ is the primary motivation for keeping America's doors open to a regulated but steady stream of qualified immigrants. Immigrants to America often have greater opportunity to learn the gospel; when converted, they can take the gospel back to their country on visits. And they also begin praying for God to raise up missionaries from among them to the rest of the world, sometimes in countries that are closed to the United States. "Don't forget," adds the Argentinian immigrant, "God was an immigrant to the world in Christ. And through him God's love was extended to every color, every race."