Illegal Immigrants Use Arresting Tactic To Plead Case

Baltazar Serrano has a lot to lose by being deported. A father of one, he has worked his way into a full-time supervisor's job at a local restaurant (out of concern for the owner, he's afraid to say which one).

He earns $11 an hour, and he's buying a mobile home in SeaTac.

He has put down seven years of roots in the United States, most of them in Seattle.

Yet being sent back to Mexico as an illegal immigrant is a fear that looms daily in his life.

"The law is the law," he said. "We want to be citizens."

Illegal as his presence here may be, officials from the Immigration and Naturalization Service knew exactly where to find Serrano and about 10 other immigrants, most of them Mexican, working illegally in Seattle. They were hard to miss earlier this week, marching around outside the yellow brick INS building on the fringes of the International District, flashing hand-scrawled signs that pronounced their desire to be arrested.


Rash as it may seem, Serrano and the others believe that getting arrested - and thereby finally gaining an audience with immigration officials - is their last chance to win citizenship.

In November, the recently passed Anti-Terrorism Bill will take effect. Michael Johnson, a Seattle attorney representing the demonstrators, said that if they have not secured a date with an immigration judge well before November - he figures by Aug. 1 - to begin "suspension of deportation" proceedings, they will remain illegal immigrants. As such, they are subject to deportation at any time until their U.S.-born children are old enough to petition on their behalf.

Thousands of illegal workers in Seattle are in that situation, he added.

"They search for people all around here, and then we come up here voluntarily and they don't arrest us," said Serrano, motioning to a passing Border Patrol officer. "They don't even have to look for us."

The Anti-Terrorism Bill, passed after the 1995 bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, will eliminate the suspension of deportation provision in immigration law. That provision allows immigrants without highly specialized skills or close family members 21 or older who are citizens to gain the status of permanent resident.

To qualify to stop their deportation, immigrants must have been in the U.S. for seven years or more, be of "good moral character" - meaning no felony convictions - and must prove that deportation would prove an extreme hardship.

Johnson said that while each has been in the country for more than seven years, none has family members old enough who are also citizens. None has the specialized skills necessary to justify an employer petitioning the government for permanent residency on their behalf.

Johnson said all have tried without success to get interviews with immigration workers to begin processing their claims. With time running out, Johnson organized the protest in the hope that arrests would trigger the process.

But getting arrested does not mean his clients are home free, he said. In fact, it's a huge gamble because a judge could deny their request to suspend deportation and expedite their departure from the country.

"They would rather take the risk than not become real people in this society," said Johnson, who carried a sign of his own at the protest. "Getting arrested . . . can lead to a better chance than being an outlaw person, of being a shadow."

Inside the yellow brick INS building, the agency's Deputy District Director, Bob Coleman Jr., could glance over his shoulder and see the demonstrators outside.

Though he could understand their desperation, he said, the fact remains that regardless of how settled they may have become, they are here illegally - their whole lives here have rested on shaky ground.

"Anyone who works illegally runs risks," he said. "The new law is just one of those," he said.

INS spokeswoman Irene Mortensen added that illegal workers also cheat the immigrants who have stood in line for the proper certification - not to mention U.S. citizens whose jobs the illegal workers are taking.

Elsewhere in the INS building, lines of immigrants waiting to meet with INS officials for one reason or another stretched all the way outside. On the day of the protest, Coleman said, the agency simply didn't have the time or resources to arrest the demonstrators.

This year alone, he added, the Seattle office expects to naturalize a record 24,000 new citizens.

"We're dealing with huge numbers of people," he said.

Coleman told Johnson he would respond to the lawyer in writing. And while Coleman said the agency might not get to the demonstrators before Aug. 1, he's not convinced that deadline is all that meaningful because the law doesn't really take effect until November.

Johnson believes the INS is just dragging matters out until after the law takes effect. Getting a date before an immigration judge can take months of time that his clients don't have.

After four hours of pacing in front of the INS, the demonstrators walked away - no one got arrested. Most went back to their jobs. Johnson and the others said they'd be back.

"I don't want to live like this for the rest of my life," said Jose Villagrana, a landscaper and one of the demonstrators. "I want to establish my life one way or another."