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January 26, 2003

Asians welcome INS shift in policy
5,000 green cards become available

By Christine McConville

Lowell, MA (The Boston Globe) Starting tomorrow, an estimated 20,000 immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam who have been living in a limbo-like status in this country will be eligible to apply for green cards.

Though only 5,000 green cards will be handed out nationwide, news of the adjustment in status is being heralded as good news in Lowell, where the Cambodian population has changed the face of the city in the past two decades.

For those who do ultimately obtain the green cards, ''it's a big deal,'' said Lowell City Councilor Chanrithy Uong, who is a Cambodian immigrant.

But some activists say the new regulations need to be expanded, so more of these temporary residents can work toward citizenship.

''It's a very tough in-between status,'' said Katherine Newell Bierman, the staff attorney for immigrant rights at the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington, D.C. ''A lot of these people have been waiting for years for a chance to get on with their life and their status.''

Uong said the changes are a ''good opportunity for people who have been working so hard and trying to obtain green cards. This allows them to unify with their families and stay in a democratic world.''

The new provisions apply to Southeast Asian emigrants known as ''parolees.'' Back in 1988, as thousands of Cambodians were fleeing their war-torn country to Lowell and other US cities, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese implemented new provisions within the parolee program.

Parolees aren't refugees, but are people who are allowed into the United States for emergency, humanitarian, and public interest purposes. Some arrived here to attend funerals or get special medical treatment. Others have arrived from countries where the United States has engaged in wars.

Parolees may legally work in this country, but are not allowed to obtain citizenship, or even US passports. If these parolees want to travel outside the country, they need special permission from the government, to ensure reentry.

''Parolees are allowed to get jobs, but they cannot do anything else,'' Uong said. ''They are here at the whim of the government, and when you have temporary status, it is hard to feel settled.''

About two years ago, then-President Bill Clinton signed the changes for the Public Parole Program into law. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service has spent two years drafting regulations, in order to clarify exactly who qualifies for the special program.

Last Dec. 26, the INS published a list of final regulations, and tomorrow, the government will begin accepting the applications.

The first 5,000 parolees who meet the application criteria will get their green cards, Newell Bierman said.

Officials in the INS' public affairs office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

For thousands of Cambodians living in Lowell, as well as other Southeast Asians living in the United States, the new regulations create a three-year window, in which an applicant must prove that he or she is a citizen or native of Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam living in the United States; was inspected and paroled into the United States from Vietnam, a refugee camp in East Asia, or a displaced persons camp administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand before Oct. 1, 1997; and was physically present in the United States on or before Oct. 1, 1997. A $275 processing fee must accompany the application.

Immigration activists estimate that about 20,000 people fit these criteria nationwide.

Obtaining a green card would mean significant changes for the targeted group, Newell Bierman said.

''In a very practical sense, it means that they don't have to constantly apply every year for permission to work,'' she said.

Green cards are a big step toward citizenship, though having one doesn't guarantee citizenship.

Applicants for citizenship must have a green card, and must wait five years after obtaining one to apply for citizenship.

Because the demand for citizenship is so great, some advocacy groups are now urging the INS to publicize the application details. Newell Bierman said that so many people are desperate to obtain green cards, that some may fall prey to duplicitous middlemen.

''People will be so bent on getting their applications, that there are going to be people who take advantage of them,'' she said.

''Immigration law is complex, and we are dealing with a population that may not have the best English language skills,'' she said.

Even Vanthan Un, a Lowell-based lawyer of Cambodian descent, cautioned that the regulations apply to a limited number of Southeast Asian immigrants.

''It is only for those who were paroled into the United States before 1997. It's not for tourists,'' he said.

But for those who do fall within the narrow guidelines, it means that highly coveted citizenship is a lot closer.

''It's putting them on a path to citizenship like they never have been before,'' he said.

But others say offering 5,000 green cards isn't enough for this group.

KaYing Yang, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said the changes in the parolee law are good, but Congress needs to modify it further, to allow all parolees who qualify to obtain green cards.

''We are very happy that they put out the regulations, but we'd like to see Congress expand that number,'' she said.

Christine McConville's e-mail is cmcconville@globe.com.

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