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Immigrants: A threat or gospel opportunity?

National | Church leaders raise questions about immigration crackdown

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

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.

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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.

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