Ever since last year's terrorist attacks on America, the United States has more closely scrutinized those wishing to enter the country from abroad - and more vigorously pursued those who reside here illegally. Immigrant advocacy groups say countless people are being unfairly targeted to the detriment of their families and American society as a whole.
During the first half of 2001, immigrant groups thought they were making progress in pressing Congress and the Bush Administration for an amnesty that would allow the legalization of undocumented immigrants who had resided in the United States for a significant period of time. President Bush discussed such a measure with his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, within months of taking office.
It was not to be.
"September 11 happened," said Marleine Bastien, a Haitian-American immigrant activist. "Hope was shattered," she said. "Dreams were shattered."
Ms. Bastien says, not only have any proposals for legalizing immigrants been shelved, but countless people who have built productive lives in the United States now live in fear of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Consider living in this country everyday," she said. "Waking up everyday and being afraid that INS [agents] will break down your door, arrest you in front of your children, shackle you and deport you."
Since September 11 of last year, federal authorities have boosted security along U.S. borders and refocused efforts to apprehend people who either entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. Some immigrants suspected of terrorist ties have been held indefinitely without charges being filed against them.
INS spokesman Bill Strassberger says none of this should come as a surprise in light of the September 11 attacks. "We are more concerned, because of what happened [on September 11], in knowing who is coming here," he said.
Mr. Strassberger says, whether or not undocumented immigrants are to receive amnesty is a matter for Congress and President Bush to decide. But he says enforcement of existing laws has become more critical in the post-September 11era. "The emphasis is more on security of our country," said Bill Strassberger. "Yes, we want to remain a country that welcomes immigrants - that is the foundation of our country. At the same time, we have to be a little more careful. The 9-11 tragedy was eye-opening for everyone, including the INS."
Many immigrant advocates say, overall, the United States has become more suspicious of foreigners and less supportive of immigration since last year's terrorist attacks. They point to the Bush Administration's refugee quota as the latest proof. Wednesday, the administration announced that the United States would accept a total of 70,000 refugees next year for humanitarian considerations. Refugee and human rights groups point out that the number is the same as this year's quota, which was sharply reduced post-September 11.
But despite what immigrant advocates describe as a difficult climate, they say progress is being made on some fronts. For instance, California, Texas and New York have abolished regulations at state colleges and universities that forced undocumented students to pay higher "out-of-state" tuition fees. Immigrant advocates are pressing other states to follow suit and hope the federal government will adopt the principle and enforce it nationwide in the near future.