2000 Eugene Katz Award For Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration

The purpose of the Katz Award is to promote informed and fair reporting on this contentious and complicated issue, and never has it been more needed. Immigration has been widely, if superficially, discussed by the presidential candidates, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the AFL-CIO, and others; it has also been a subject of some contention over the past year in congressional debates over visas for temporary workers and amnesties for illegal aliens, as well as in the Michigan Senate campaign.

The winner of this year's award is William Branigin of The Washington Post. A veteran of more than 20 years at the Post, he covered the immigration beat for about four years, until last summer. Whether writing about Congress, federal agencies, or the courts; Asia, Europe, or Latin America; or smuggling, sweatshops, or assimilation, his approach was well-grounded, thorough, and dispassionate. The enclosed stories are necessarily a small selection from a very large crop of stories, but they give an idea of the breadth of Mr. Branigin's coverage of the issue.

One factor which contributed to the quality of his reporting on immigration was his long experience as a foreign correspondent in many countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East that send immigrants to the United States. Having covered people overseas trying to move to the United States, he came to the beat with real insight into the motivations of immigrants and the conditions which they left behind.

The Post itself deserves credit, as well, for devoting the resources to cover immigration as an independent beat, allowing Mr. Branigin to develop an in-depth understanding of the intricacies of immigration policy. Too often reporters are forced to cover the issue episodically, even at major newspapers, wire services, and broadcast networks. There are probably good reasons why these organizations do not assign immigration as a distinct beat -- it costs money and there are so many other areas that warrant coverage; most immigrants are non-white, so it just seems natural to tack on immigration to the minority issues beat; or, since most illegal immigration takes place along the southern border, and Mexicans are the largest single group of immigrants, it makes sense to other papers to tack immigration onto a Southwest regional beat.

Another reason few papers have an immigration beat distinct from coverage of immigrants is the widespread conflation of immigrant and immigration policy -- not only editors and reporters, but also policymakers and the public confuse the mechanisms we use to select newcomers (immigration policy) with the way we treat foreigners who already live among us (immigrant policy). Though they are related, the two issues are distinct, and news coverage should reflect that when possible.

Now, coverage of the newcomers who live among us is altogether appropriate -- the child of refugees becoming her high school's valedictorian; single young men, away from their families gathering each week to play soccer in an abandoned field; a mother distraught at the pending deportation of her son after his conviction for car theft -- these are the kind of local news stories papers are supposed to cover. But without accompanying coverage, and understanding, of immigration policy and its effects, such stories totally lack context, and reporters and editors run the risk of being used by political advocates playing on their gullibility or unfamiliarity with the issue, and thus ill-serving the public.

Even the basic facts relating to immigration require a reporter to have a relatively sophisticated understanding of the issue in order to communicate them properly. For instance, government statistics relating to immigration are not necessarily what they seem -- "legal immigrant admissions" suggest the total number of people steaming by the Statue of Liberty in a given year, when, in fact, half of those so reported are already living in the United States. The politics of immigration also require a deep grasp of the issue -- the usual labels of "conservative" and "liberal" are wholly inadequate to describe the opposing sides, and yet they are used on a regular basis.

To look on the bright side, Mr. Branigin's outstanding work, and the Post's commitment to covering the issue, may be a sign of things to come. Other neglected beats, after all, have grown in importance over the years. Business coverage, for instance, used to be confined to specialized publications, but in the past couple decades has grown dramatically, both in expanded business sections and on the front page. Religion, likewise, has blossomed as a beat, with dozens of papers having started serious religion sections in the 1990s, and religion stories frequently featured in the news sections. And what about the Orange County Register's shopping-mall beat? In a dispersed suburban community, such a beat made real sense, helping dig up stories that weren't previously being reported.

Given the growth in news coverage of these and other previously neglected areas of community life, there is hope that more newspapers will see fit to treat immigration news more seriously, and William Branigin's work at the Post should serve as an example of what is possible.

Mark Krikorian
Executive Director
Center for Immigration Studies
June 2000

William Branigin Articles

1. Stay or Go--An Agonizing Choice; Refugee Family Is Torn Between Kosovo's Emotional Tug, America's Opportunities

2. 'Modern-Day Slavery'; Imported Servants Allege Abuse By Foreign Host Families in U.S.

3. Visa Program, High-Tech Workers Exploited, Critics Say
Visa Program Brings Charges of Exploitation

4. Immigrants Question Idea of Assimilation

5. U.S. Issuing More Visas To Investors; Critics Say 1990 Statute Opens Path to Citizenship For Wealthy Foreigners

6. Risky Passage to America's Back Door; Thousands of Illegal Migrants Attempt Boat Trip to Puerto Rico

7. Nation's Political Asylum System Draws Criticism From Both Sides; Handling of Contrasting Cases Illustrates Inconsistency in Process

Stay or Go--An Agonizing Choice
Refugee Family Is Torn Between Kosovo's Emotional Tug, America's Opportunities
William Branigin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, July 13, 1999, Pg. A3

ELGIN, Ill. -- In the months since war engulfed their native Kosovo, the Behluli family has faced a series of wrenching choices.

Torn between attachment to their homeland and the imperatives of survival, they hunkered in their houses for more than a month before making their way to neighboring Macedonia at the end of April. Then they had to choose between waiting out the war in a refugee camp and flying off to more distant exiles abroad.

Ultimately, they accepted an offer of resettlement in the United States, flying into New York's Kennedy Airport last month and surprising a U.S. relief agency that had expected to resettle five Behlulis but found 14 on the flight. The ethnic Albanian refugees then flew to the suburbs of Chicago, where they have relatives and an American family had agreed to sponsor them.

Now, the Behlulis may be headed home. Informed of a new U.S. government repatriation program that was announced yesterday, the family of Naser Behluli, a 40-year-old businessman, screamed and wept for joy in the crowded, one-bedroom dormitory apartment they share. They cannot wait to get back to Kosovo, he said.

But the U.S. offer to pay the refugees' way home--after weeks of insisting it was not yet safe for them to return--also presents the family with a new dilemma. Enver Behluli, Naser's younger brother and business partner, and his wife are not so sure they want to go back. They do not want to divide the family, but at the same time they are attracted to the prospect of a better life in the United States.

It is a dilemma shared by many of the 9,700 other Kosovo refugees in the United States, who must now decide whether to accept permanent resettlement here or return to Kosovo to reconstruct their homes and businesses. If they choose the former, they face the deracinating, humbling experience of starting over in a strange land near the bottom of the economic ladder and further splitting extended families that already have been scattered across the globe. If they opt to go home, they must accept the risk of further violence and the challenge of rebuilding in a place with an uncertain future.

Many desperately want to go home, but for several weeks the U.S. government and private relief agencies that specialize in resettlement had discouraged them from doing so. Washington said it would pay their way home only when it received assurances that Kosovo was secure--even though 640,000 refugees in neighboring countries had already gone back in the past month.

Faced with the flood of returnees to Kosovo and the insistence of many in the United States on joining them, the State Department yesterday changed course, announcing it would send the refugees home at U.S. expense through the International Organization for Migration, an agency that facilitates refugee movements worldwide. The first charter flight from the United States is tentatively scheduled for July 26, the IOM said.

For the Behluli family, the policy shift means an opportunity to return home. But as they begin their second month in the United States, the 14 Behlulis--brothers Naser and Enver; their wives and seven children; their mother, Hava; and their sister Mendulrije and her infant son--are being pulled in different directions by relatives and well-intentioned relief officials.

Enver's wife, Feride, has a brother in a nearby suburb who wants the two of them and their three children to start a new life here. Enver and Feride are wavering. The bother-in-law has offered Enver a permanent job with him in the apartment complex he maintains. But the hardware business Enver operated with his brother, Naser, in Kosovo also beckons him.

For Naser and the family matriarch, 84-year-old Hava, there is no such ambivalence.

"When can we go?" Hava asked after hearing news of the repatriation program. She said a relative had just informed them that their house was damaged and looted, but was not burned and is still habitable. "I don't care," the wizened grandmother said. "As long as people are going back, I'm going to go back, too."

She and Naser now wish they had never left the muddy, crowded Stenkovic II refugee camp in Macedonia that they had been so frantic to flee last month just days before Slobodan Milosevic agreed to pull his forces out of Kosovo.

"I can't stay here," Hava Behluli said recently, sitting on a sofa in the dormitory apartment at Judson College, where the family found temporary housing. She wiped tears from her face. "I just want to go home," she said. "I just want to go and die over there."

The Behlulis had a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in Kosovo--their own two-story homes, two cars and a truck in the town of Ferizaj, which the Serbs call Urosevac. The brothers' hardware business included a warehouse, two shops and eight employees. Naser still has the cell phone he used to conduct business, a reminder of the relative prosperity his family enjoyed.

All that came to an end when NATO warplanes began attacking in late March and Serb forces started driving ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo en masse. Serb soldiers threatened to kill the Behlulis in retaliation for NATO attacks on nearby Yugoslav army barracks, but took out their wrath on other neighbors instead.

"We were afraid to leave and we were afraid to stay," said Naser's wife, Alije. "We kept hearing stories that instead of taking people to the border, the Serbs would take them to a ditch and shoot everyone. But eventually we couldn't take it anymore. We had to leave."

So the brothers gathered their families, along with their mother and sister, and left for Macedonia by bus. Mendulrije's husband, a soldier in the Kosovo Liberation Army, was left behind in the hills somewhere in the province. Just days ago, the family heard that he survived, increasing Mendulrije's desire to return home.

After six weeks in the Macedonian camp, the Behlulis were evacuated to the United States, finally landing in Elgin on June 8.

For five weeks, they have adjusted to American life with help from their sponsors, Vincent and MaryAnn Barlow and their four children. The family runs the Jeremiah Restoration Ministry, a Christian group that performs musical shows at church gatherings around the country. Vincent Barlow has arranged odd jobs, such as house-painting and window-washing, for the two Behluli brothers. He has taken Enver to a chiropractor for a back ailment and is writing songs to help the children learn English. MaryAnn Barlow is teaching the Behlulis to shop in American supermarkets with the food stamps they receive. The Barlow children, including three teenage girls, come over daily to play with the Behluli children, who range in age from 11 months to 13 years.

But the Behlulis have known that the longer they stay in America, the more difficult it will be for them to return home. The family has resisted the steps that World Relief, and by extension the U.S. government, have wanted them to take--steps that signify more of a commitment to remaining in the United States. Among these are moving into apartments and signing leases, taking regular jobs, enrolling the children in school and taking formal English classes themselves.

"There seems to be some pressure to get these guys settled, for them to get jobs and take up permanent residence," Vincent Barlow said. But having heard the family repeatedly express a longing for Kosovo, he wonders whether settling here is in the family's best interests. To survive in the U.S. economy, he notes, both parents would probably have to work and put the children in day care.

"For years they've been so close," Barlow said. "Is that really the best thing for the family? Sometimes we assume that what we have is better than everyone else."

Already, though, there have been signs that the Behluli children were adapting to life in the United States.

On a typical day, the daughters of Naser and Alije--Valerina, 13, and Alberina, 12--spend the morning studying English at a table in their third-floor dormitory. A balcony overlooks a pond with a fountain, and a stream runs through the campus. Ducks gather on the lawn below, and children blow soap bubbles to a cocker spaniel, which playfully tries to catch them.

"I think the longer we stay, the chances are they won't want to go back," Hava Behluli said of the children, a tone of worry in her voice. "So far they haven't been bored. It's possible they might even like it here." Above, Naser Behluli rests with his son Valdrin after a morning of washing windows to earn money. Below, 84-year-old Hava Behluli, left, the family's matriarch, tells a funny story to some members of her extended family who are visiting from the Chicago area. Above, Flamur, Diar and Valdrin Behluli rinse off in the shower after some messy playing. Below, 9-year-old Flamur nervously waits for a dentist to pull three decayed teeth as his mother, Alije Behluli, tries to comfort him.

Copyright 1999, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


'Modern-Day Slavery'
Imported Servants Allege Abuse By Foreign Host Families in U.S.
William Branigin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, January 5, 1999, Pg. A1

Thousands of domestic servants are being brought into the United States from impoverished countries and then severely exploited by foreign employers, many of whom work for embassies and international organizations in the Washington area, according to human rights groups, immigration attorneys and former domestics.

Despite occasional publicity about such cases in the past, the abuses have persisted with relative impunity and appear to be on the rise, the domestics' advocates and others interviewed by The Washington Post say.

A federal "worker exploitation task force" formed by Attorney General Janet Reno is investigating some of the worst alleged offenders as part of a broader crackdown on labor abuse. The task force, which includes members of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Labor Department, is aimed at rooting out what Reno has called "the serious problem of modern-day slavery" in the United States.

But in concentrating their efforts on the most egregious cases involving the suspected illegal confinement of servants, federal agencies have skipped over others that fall short of that standard, even when they include apparent violations of federal labor, immigration and tax laws.

The domestic servants, most of them women from poor backgrounds in Africa, Asia and Latin America, are typically imported under a provision of immigration law that allows foreign diplomats, embassy employees and officials of organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United Nations to bring in personal household workers with the understanding that the employers will abide by U.S. labor laws. There is, however, virtually no oversight into whether they comply.

The World Bank, IMF and United Nations say they cannot be expected to monitor their staff members' private lives. In any case, they say, few complaints have come to their attention.

Yet, over the years, hundreds of servants have run away from their employers to escape abusive treatment, excessive hours, low pay or no pay at all. Some have filed lawsuits in U.S. courts for back wages and damages. Their cases illustrate the exploitation being alleged in Washington area homes:

An Ethiopian woman who was brought to the United States in 1990 by an IMF official says she toiled for more than eight years in a Silver Spring apartment until she escaped in May. She says her employers forced her to work seven days a week, isolated her from other people and hit her if she complained.

Another Ethiopian says she received no pay for more than six years of work in the Rockville home of an Ethiopian-born couple who arranged for her to come to the United States on a tourist visa. She says her duties included caring for the couple's sick child on 24-hour call.

A nanny from the Philippines says three other Filipinos -- her employers and a friend of theirs -- arranged to bring her in fraudulently under a visa for servants of embassy employees, then put her to work in Fairfax for 41 cents an hour. For more than a year before she escaped, she says, she had to work 16 hours a day and received only one day off during the entire period.

So far this decade, more than 30,000 domestics have been brought to the United States under special work visas. Many are treated equitably. But among the others are some of the most exploited workers in the United States today, according to social workers, church groups and lawyers who have dealt with their cases.

Behind the closed doors of homes ranging from modest apartments in Silver Spring to mansions in McLean, many foreign servants live in silent despair, toiling long hours for low wages but too fearful, isolated or insecure about what will happen to them to complain or break free, human rights advocates and investigators say. In part, the servants are hostage to intimidation by their employers, lack of knowledge about where to turn for help and the restrictions of their visas, which bar them from working for anyone else.

Bill Lann Lee, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights and co-chairman of Reno's task force, said federal investigators are looking for abuses "that are so severe they rise to a level of involuntary servitude." Investigators do not yet know how widespread such abuses are, Lee said, but "there is anecdotal evidence that the problem may be larger than people have thought."

One FBI-led team is investigating a well-off Brazilian businessman and his wife who allegedly held an illiterate servant from their homeland in slave-like conditions for 19 years while she worked in their suburban Maryland home.

The servant, who is about 60, came to authorities' attention recently when she had to be hospitalized for treatment of a long-neglected stomach tumor. She told local social workers that she sometimes had to beg neighbors for food and clothing and was regularly beaten by the wife. She said the couple told her that if she fled their home, she would be arrested immediately because she is black.

"They essentially preyed on her ignorance," a source familiar with the case said. U.S. officials declined to discuss the matter because it is still under investigation.

According to the State Department, about 3,800 domestic servants come to the United States each year under two types of temporary employment visas to work for foreign diplomats or non-U.S. staff members of international organizations. The servants may be brought in from any country. About a quarter come from the Philippines.

In addition, immigrants sometimes illegally bring in domestics from their homelands on tourist visas, claiming they are relatives or friends who are visiting temporarily.

The work visas of legal domestics are generally valid for two to three years and may be renewed periodically as long as the employer remains a diplomat or international civil servant. The visas require the domestics to work only for the employers who sponsored them. If they quit and seek another job, they lose legal status and become subject to deportation.

Employers and their domestics typically sign contracts that meet U.S. wage requirements. The contracts are then presented at U.S. consulates to help obtain the visas.

Guidelines published by the World Bank and IMF say their staff members who wish to employ domestics -- defined as ranging from butlers, valets and maids to gardeners, grooms and chauffeurs -- must pay at least the minimum wage, allow two days off a week, pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, buy workers' compensation insurance and pay federal and state unemployment taxes. At the current minimum wage rates of $ 6.15 an hour in Washington, D.C., and $ 5.15 in Maryland and Virginia, domestics should receive $ 1,066 a month for the standard 40-hour work week in the District and $ 892 a month in the suburbs.

"This all looks lovely on paper, but there's absolutely no monitoring" by the World Bank or IMF to ensure that staff members meet their obligations, said Martha Honey, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that is mobilizing a campaign to protect the domestics' rights.

Mark Bowyer, manager of the World Bank's human resources service center, said the bank relies on the staff members themselves to comply with U.S. law. World Bank staff members in the Washington area currently employ 790 domestics. Bowyer said the bank's ethics office investigates about seven complaints of abuse a year from domestics who know enough to contact the organization. He acknowledged that these cases "are probably only a subset" of the overall problem.

The State Department says it has no way of measuring the extent to which domestic servants are abused. But it was sufficiently alarmed two years ago to send all Washington embassies a nine-page note expressing concern that some diplomats have substantially underpaid household workers or failed to pay them at all, required them to work long hours with no overtime, confiscated their passports and confined them to their workplaces.

Church workers, attorneys and former domestics say such practices are common. Unlike maids hired in the United States, those brought in under special visas are not free to work elsewhere if they do not like the pay or working conditions. In effect, says Edward Leavy, a Washington lawyer who has represented a number of domestics, the system amounts to a form of indentured servitude that embassies, international organizations and the U.S. government for years have been content to preserve.

According to the Rev. Mark Poletunow of the Spanish Catholic Center, the charity has seen "many cases of abuse" in its 31-year history, and the situation is "progressively worsening."

Over the past two years, about 60 Philippine domestics have come to Washington-based immigration lawyer Arnedo S. Valera after running away from their employers. Most say they were underpaid but opt not to file labor claims, he said. Instead, they simply want help obtaining legal immigration status.

"They're scared to complain," Valera said. "They don't want to confront the employer."

A new advocacy group here, the Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers Rights, says the World Bank and IMF bear major responsibility because they actively assist their non-U.S. staff members in arranging visas for domestics. The group wants the World Bank to help inform domestics of their rights, fund a $350,000-a-year independent monitoring program and require staff members to submit copies of contracts, federal tax forms and proof of wage payment.

The World Bank has expressed a willingness to discuss the proposals, but the IMF has rebuffed the group's request for talks. The IMF "is prepared to take disciplinary action" against staff members who mistreat domestics, but only "a handful" of such cases have come up, a spokesman said.

The international organizations usually urge staff members to settle disputes with their servants out of court.

In one recent case in New York, Marie Angelique Savane, a leading women's rights advocate from Senegal who headed the Africa section of the United Nations Population Office, agreed to pay $ 7,000 to a Senegalese domestic who complained of inhumane treatment in Savane's Manhattan apartment. Savane, who denied wrongdoing, returned to Senegal. Her maid remained in the United States illegally.

Among other alleged victims who are pursuing private lawsuits is Ayelech Mamo, an Ethiopian woman in her fifties who says she was enslaved in Rockville for 6 1/2 years by an Ethiopian-born immigrant couple, Tewolde and Elizabeth Iyob, who arranged for her to come here in 1990 on a tourist visa.

Mamo said she was required to provide round-the-clock care for the couple's seriously ill child in addition to her household chores. She said the Iyobs never paid her personally, but sent her family in Ethiopia $ 2,100, which amounted to less than $ 28 a month for her work.

Breaking down in tears as she told her story in an interview, Mamo said the Iyobs never gave her any time off, never took her to a doctor, did not allow her to go to church and discouraged her from making friends. She finally fled last year.

"I felt like a prisoner," she said. Now destitute and in hiding, she said she fears retaliation if her former employers learn where she is staying.

In court documents, the Iyobs denied Mamo's charges, saying they did not bring her to the United States as a domestic servant, but "as a loved and respected member of the Iyob family." Tewolde Iyob called Mamo "my wife's aunt" in a letter used to request her U.S. visa, but an affidavit by Elizabeth Iyob described a more informal godparent relationship and acknowledged that Mamo "is not technically related to me by blood."

The Iyobs said no payment was ever contemplated for Mamo's work, which was "merely her voluntary contribution to the family which sustained and supported her."

Besides, said the Iyobs' lawyer, David C. Simmons, Mamo's claim for full back wages is invalid because of a two-year statute of limitations. He denied that his clients committed immigration fraud in the case, saying it was up to Mamo to legalize her status after her tourist visa expired.

The case of another nanny, 38-year-old Margarita Miranda, illustrates how an imported servant can end up working for someone other than the sponsor of her special visa, in apparent violation of labor and immigration laws. She came to Northern Virginia three years ago to take up a job offer she received while working as a nanny in Manila.

But to get the job with Mark and Vesta Dimatulac, who needed a nanny for their infant daughter in Fairfax, she had to sign a contract with Vesta Dimatulac's best friend, Annamarie Go, who worked as a secretary for the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Like Miranda, Go and the Dimatulacs are from the Philippines.

Because Go held an A-2 diplomatic visa, she was allowed to bring in a servant, a perk that the Dimatulacs did not enjoy. Miranda's contract with Go called for a weekly salary of $ 210 for the standard 40 hours of work. Instead, Miranda said in court documents and an interview, she had to work about 112 hours a week, caring for the Dimatulacs' children and performing all sorts of household chores for $ 200 a month.

The Dimatulacs "told me not to talk to anybody," Miranda said. They were afraid, she said, that if she met other Filipinos, she would run away.

After 16 months, Miranda finally fled with a few belongings. A legal battle ensued, with Miranda eventually receiving a modest settlement out of court. The Dimatulacs and Go dropped counterclaims in which they argued that Miranda owed them for room and board and for failing to work for Go as contracted.

Although the case involved only civil labor issues, U.S. officials said Miranda's account suggests she was brought here through visa fraud, a felony. A lawyer for Go and the Dimatulacs, James L. Marketos, had no comment on this, and federal authorities have not investigated it. Yeshehareg Teferra says she came here from Ethiopia under a contract guaranteeing $ 235 a week but received 3 cents an hour. Ayelech Mamo is hiding from the Rockville family she says never gave her time off, never took her to a doctor and discouraged her from making friends. Margarita Miranda signed a contract with one family, but upon arrival from Manila was sent to work for another family -- an apparent legal violation.

Copyright 1999, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


Visa Program, High-Tech Workers Exploited, Critics Say
Visa Program Brings Charges of Exploitation
William Branigin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, July 26, 1998, Pg. A1

SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- For a man with a master's degree who works in the high-tech industry, Satish Appalakutty lives frugally. He shares a small, sparsely furnished apartment with three other Indian computer programmers, sleeping two to a bedroom. Like them, he is saving for the day when he will either go back to India or, if good fortune allows, become a permanent U.S. resident and start his own company.

"Most of the Indians I know here are living this way," the 25-year-old Bombay native said as his apartment shook from the rumble of an elevated commuter train about 30 yards from his front door.

Appalakutty and his roommates are among thousands of foreign workers who enter the United States every year under a controversial visa program that allows them to work here temporarily. In some ways, they are the high-tech incarnations of the braceros of old, those laborers who were brought in to toil on American farms during and after World War II.

Instead of Mexico, the new techno-braceros come from countries such as India, China and the Philippines, and they tend to be well educated and highly skilled. The information technology industry here in Silicon Valley considers their skills vital to the competitiveness of U.S. companies in an increasingly cutthroat global market.

But like their low-tech predecessors, today's migrant cyberworkers constitute a vulnerable group that can be easily exploited.

Moreover, labor advocates and other critics say the program has been widely abused. Far from having exceptional skills, they contend, most computer workers brought in under it are run-of-the-mill programmers whose availability serves to hold down wages in a tight labor market.

These workers are at the heart of a heated debate over the work force needs of America's information technology sector. The issue has sharply divided congressional Republicans, who have been wrangling over proposed legislation to raise a 65,000-a-year cap on a temporary visa category, called H-1B, that is used to bring in thousands of foreign computer programmers.

In a compromise announced Friday, House and Senate Republicans agreed to raise the cap gradually to 115,000 over four years and require companies that use the program heavily to attest that they have tried to recruit Americans and have not laid off U.S. employees in order to hire H-1B workers.

The debate also reflects some of the broader social questions and power struggles -- between business and labor, for example -- that have arisen as the nation tries to absorb one of the greatest waves of immigration in U.S. history. Although H-1B visas are meant to grant only temporary status, they allow for stays of up to six years and often are used as a stepping stone to legal permanent resident status, a prerequisite for U.S. citizenship.

The program is designed to help companies fill specialized jobs for which American workers are not available. Technology firms say it is crucial to their industry, allowing them to recruit "the best and the brightest" from around the world.

Chandra Sekhar, a former H-1B worker from India who settled here and co-founded a high-tech company called Exodus Communications, argues that the primary motive for bringing in foreign programmers is "getting the right people" and that hiring them "at a good price" is secondary. "I'd better be allowed to hire who I think is right for my company," he said. "We want the least amount of government interference."

According to foreign workers, recruiters and U.S. officials, the high-tech braceros generally earn less than their American counterparts, despite laws requiring employers to pay them "prevailing wages." The workers are beholden to the employers who sponsor their visas in what the system's critics describe as a form of indentured servitude. If they wish to move to another company, they not only must obtain a new work visa, but often must pay a penalty of $ 10,000 to $ 20,000 to their original employer.

To keep them from seeking higher pay elsewhere, employers frequently dangle the promise of sponsoring them for "green cards," denoting much-coveted status as legal permanent residents. This gives the companies enormous leverage, since the process is a lengthy one and must be started over from scratch if the worker moves to another employer. Some companies also promise recruits specific jobs, then put them "on the bench" with small allowances while they try to farm them out as subcontractors.

The program generates few formal complaints from H-1B workers, however, since they generally earn much more here than they could in their homelands, and because many are reluctant to offend employers who hold the keys to their future. Still, these workers are quick to recognize inequities in their treatment.

Appalakutty, who holds a master's degree in computer management from the University of Poona near Bombay, is paid $ 50,000 a year by his contracting agency. That is a fortune in India, where he had been earning less than $ 3,000 a year, but falls well below the approximately $ 70,000 that he says Americans or permanent residents with his education level make for the same kind of work.

He said he is still considering whether to seek sponsorship for a green card. He knows he needs it if he is ever to realize his dream of starting his own software company. But he is wary of being tied to an employer while waiting for it.

"Sometimes a company takes advantage of you because they know you're stuck to that company," he said.

Besides receiving lower starting pay, H-1B workers complain of getting fewer and smaller raises, remaining mired in relatively menial jobs and, as salaried employees, having to work long hours without overtime.

"H-1Bs are expected to work harder," said a Filipino immigrant who works for a Japanese computer firm. "Usually the people who stay late are the non-Americans."

For many American workers, particularly older ones, such expectations are precisely the problem. They complain of age discrimination and of having to compete with foreigners who are willing to accept lower salaries and work longer hours.

Bill Halchin, 48, recently moved to Silicon Valley from Texas after being unemployed for four months and now works as a computer consultant here. He feels employers overlook valuable experience when they "try to do it on the cheap" by recruiting young H-1B workers or Americans just out of college.

At his previous job, Indian co-workers complained to him that "we're treated like slaves here," Halchin said. The preference of some firms for H-1B workers makes it difficult for U.S. citizens to get jobs there and "just drives down salaries," he said.

The older programmers have watched as a growing corps of foreign workers has changed the face of Silicon Valley. Here, programmers from China, Russia, India and elsewhere tap away at desktop computers in close proximity with Americans, but tend to stick together by nationality outside the office. Many of the Chinese, who seem to predominate among the valley's foreign high-tech workers, can program in the languages of computers but speak little English.

The new demographics can be seen even more vividly in the sea of Asian and South Asian faces at the commuter train stations near Appalakutty's apartment, a tide of humanity that reflects the more than 35 percent of Silicon Valley programmers and computer engineers who are foreign-born. At his middle-class complex of two-story apartment blocks, Chinese and Indian immigrants account for about 65 percent of the residents, Appalakutty says.

In his own second-floor apartment, the influences of Indian culture mix with those of a bachelor, cyberworker lifestyle. As in India, shoes are left at the door. The living room furniture consists of a television and a stereo. The walls are unadorned except for an Indian calendar, a poster of the Golden Gate Bridge and, in a small dining area, a whiteboard above a cluttered dinette table and a few chairs. Lying in a corner are a basketball and a deflated balloon left over from a roommate's recent birthday party.

One challenge for Indian newcomers is food. "We're mostly vegetarians," said Raghaban Srinivasan, 24, who moved into the apartment when he arrived from Bombay seven months ago. Indian restaurants and grocery stores have sprouted around the valley to meet the need, but fast-food choices remain scanty. McDonald's, he lamented, "doesn't have a veggie burger."

Still, Srinivasan speaks in awestruck tones of what he has found in this high-tech Mecca.

"It's been a wonderful experience," he said. "I drive past companies like Intel and IBM every day. It's thrilling. All the technology in the world originates here. It inspires you and you can really think big."

But life in the valley is expensive. The two-bedroom apartment the Indians share rents for $ 1,600 a month, and better ones they have looked at cost $ 2,500 a month.

Sitting on dining chairs in their bare living room, Appalakutty and Srinivasan agree that if growing numbers of Indians are taking up computer programming, it is not necessarily because they have better skills than young Americans. Often, they say, it is because they are compelled to by their families.

"Here, you choose to live more after your heart," Srinivasan said. "Back home you end up doing something you are asked to do. . . . You have a family decision in many cases. There's a lot of pressure."

The biggest employers of workers like the two roommates are agencies known as "job shops," many of them subsidiaries of Indian companies or owned by Indian immigrants. These firms import programmers to hire out as "temps" at substantial profits. The agencies here typically charge client companies fees at least three times higher than what they pay the workers, according to employees and recruiters. The client firms benefit by getting workers with specific skills for the length of a project, thereby avoiding outlays for training and benefits.

"These companies are misusing the H-1B process," said Dominique Black, who runs a high-tech personnel placement firm in Silicon Valley. "Importing advanced skills is absolutely essential to our national economy. Hiding behind that to bring in mid- and lower-level skills is a fraud."

"A lot of the H-1B process smells of indentured servitude," he said. "Should companies hold out the prospect of American citizenship and in exchange put people in a weak bargaining position? That's the real issue."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose district covers Silicon Valley, said she was surprised to find firms she had never heard of heading the list of H-1B visa sponsors. Among them are HCL America (the initials stand for Hindustan Computers Ltd.), a subsidiary of an Indian firm that occupies an imposing, fortress-like building in Sunnyvale. Although immigration law requires companies to make public their records on H-1B visa applications, an HCL America official declined to tell a reporter the name of the firm's chief executive, Arjun Malhotra, much less any information about its H-1B workers.

The owner of another company on the list, Lewis P. Wheeler of Pittsburgh-based Computer People Inc., insisted that the Indian programmers he recruits do not take jobs from Americans or receive lower wages -- at least not after they have been in the country for awhile and learn their market value. He said U.S. companies often prefer to hire Indians because they are "better at getting themselves educated" in hotly demanded skills.

Manuel, a 29-year-old Filipino who did not want to be further identified for fear of retaliation by his employer, relates a different experience. He was recruited in Manila two years ago for an H-1B programming job here, but arrived to find there were no openings for him and dozens of other recruits. He said they were given $ 100 a week while "sitting on the bench" for three months, then paid $ 20 an hour when their agency succeeded in hiring them out. An independent contractor would make at least $ 35 an hour for the same work, Manuel said.

In addition, he said, the programmers were required to pay the American-owned agency $ 10,000 to $ 20,000 in "breach of contract" penalties if they took a job elsewhere. "That's why lots of people were afraid to jump ship," he said. "It sounds like slavery."

John Fraser, acting chief of the Labor Department's wage and hour division, said that although the department does not believe it is legal to keep H-1B workers "on the bench" without salaries, it has not been able to enforce payment. He said the legality of the breach-of-contract provisions depends on state contract law.

Initially, Manuel said, his agency paid its H-1B workers by the hour but later put them on a salary, while continuing to charge clients an hourly rate. This meant that "no matter how many hours you work, you don't get any overtime."

Manuel, who shares a house with another programmer and his family, said that like many firms, his agency used the prospect of a green card as a bargaining chip to keep employees from seeking better pay elsewhere. In his case, he said, there was no evidence that the agency had actually filed the sponsorship papers. "It looked like a scam to me," he said.

Some workers have been waiting for their employer-sponsored green cards for three years, Manuel said. "They can't jump ship," he said, "because they think the green card may come any day."

Copyright 1998, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


Immigrants Question Idea of Assimilation
William Branigin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, May 25, 1998, Pg. A1

OMAHA -- Night is falling on South Omaha, and Maria Jacinto is patting tortillas for the evening meal in the kitchen of the small house she shares with her husband and five children. Like many others in her neighborhood, where most of the residents are Mexican immigrants, the Jacinto household mixes the old country with the new.

As Jacinto, who speaks only Spanish, stresses a need to maintain the family's Mexican heritage, her eldest son, a bilingual 11-year-old who wears a San Francisco 49ers jacket and has a paper route, comes in and joins his brothers and sisters in the living room to watch "The Simpsons."

Jacinto became a U.S. citizen last April, but she does not feel like an American. In fact, she seems resistant to the idea of assimilating into U.S. society.

"I think I'm still a Mexican," she says. "When my skin turns white and my hair turns blond, then I'll be an American."

In many ways, the experiences of the Jacinto family are typical of the gradual process of assimilation that has pulled generations of immigrants into the American mainstream. That process is nothing new to Omaha, which drew waves of Czech, German and Irish immigrants early this century.

But in the current immigration wave, something markedly different is happening here in the middle of the great American "melting pot."

Not only are the demographics of the United States changing in profound and unprecedented ways, but so too are the very notions of assimilation and the melting pot that have been articles of faith in the American self-image for generations.

E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One) remains the national motto, but there no longer seems to be a consensus about what that should mean.

There is a sense that, especially as immigrant populations reach a critical mass in many communities, it is no longer the melting pot that is transforming them, but they who are transforming American society.

American culture remains a powerful force -- for better or worse -- that influences people both here and around the world in countless ways. But several factors have combined in recent years to allow immigrants to resist, if they choose, the Americanization that had once been considered irresistible.

In fact, the very concept of assimilation is being called into question as never before. Some sociologists argue that the melting pot often means little more than "Anglo conformity" and that assimilation is not always a positive experience -- for either society or the immigrants themselves. And with today's emphasis on diversity and ethnicity, it has become easier than ever for immigrants to avoid the melting pot entirely. Even the metaphor itself is changing, having fallen out of fashion completely with many immigration advocacy and ethnic groups. They prefer such terms as the "salad bowl" and the "mosaic," metaphors that convey more of a sense of separateness in describing this nation of immigrants.

"It's difficult to adapt to the culture here," said Maria Jacinto, 32, who moved to the United States 10 years ago with her husband, Aristeo Jacinto, 36. "In the Hispanic tradition, the family comes first, not money. It's important for our children not to be influenced too much by the gueros," she said, using a term that means "blondies" but that she employs generally in reference to Americans. "I don't want my children to be influenced by immoral things."

Over the blare of the television in the next room, she asked, "Not all families here are like the Simpsons, are they?"

Among socially conservative families such as the Jacintos, who initially moved to California from their village in Mexico's Guanajuato state, then migrated here in 1988 to find jobs in the meatpacking industry, bad influences are a constant concern. They see their children assimilating, but often to the worst aspects of American culture.

Her concerns reflect some of the complexities and ambivalence that mark the assimilation process these days. Immigrants such as the Jacintos are here to stay but remain wary of their adoptive country. According to sociologists, they are right to be concerned.

"If assimilation is a learning process, it involves learning good things and bad things," said Ruben G. Rumbaut, a sociology professor at Michigan State University. "It doesn't always lead to something better."

At work, not only in Omaha but in immigrant communities across the country, is a process often referred to as "segmented" assimilation, in which immigrants follow different paths to incorporation in U.S. society. These range from the classic American ideal of blending into the vast middle class, to a "downward assimilation" into an adversarial underclass, to a buffered integration into "immigrant enclaves." Sometimes, members of the same family end up taking sharply divergent paths, especially children and their parents.

The ambivalence of assimilation can cut both ways. Many native-born Americans also seem to harbor mixed feelings about the process. As a nation, the United States increasingly promotes diversity, but there are underlying concerns that the more emphasis there is on the factors that set people apart, the more likely that society will end up divided.

With Hispanics, especially Mexicans, accounting for an increasing proportion of U.S. population growth, it is this group, more than any other, that is redefining the melting pot.

Hispanics now have overtaken blacks as the largest minority group in Nebraska and will become the biggest minority in the country within the next seven years, according to Census Bureau projections. The nation's 29 million Hispanics, the great majority of them from Mexico, have thus become the main focus for questions about how the United States today is assimilating immigrants, or how it is being transformed.

In many places, new Hispanic immigrants have tended to cluster in "niche" occupations, live in segregated neighborhoods and worship in separate churches. In this behavior they are much like previous groups of immigrants. But their heavy concentrations in certain parts of the country, their relatively close proximity to their native lands and their sheer numbers give this wave of immigrants an unprecedented potential to change the way the melting pot traditionally has worked.

Never before have so many immigrants come from a single country -- Mexico -- or from a single linguistic source -- Spanish-speaking Latin America. Since 1970, more than half of the estimated 20 million foreign-born people who have settled in the United States, legally and illegally, have been Spanish speakers.

Besides sheer numbers, several factors combine to make this influx unprecedented in the history of American immigration. This is the first time that such large numbers of people are immigrating from a contiguous country. And since most have flowed into relatively few states, congregating heavily in the American Southwest, Mexican Americans have the capacity to develop much greater cohesion than previous immigrant groups. Today Hispanics, mostly of Mexican origin, make up 31 percent of the population of California and 28 percent of the population of Texas.

In effect, that allows Mexican Americans to "perpetuate themselves as a separate community and even strengthen their sense of separateness if they chose to, or felt compelled to," said David M. Kennedy, a professor of American history at Stanford University.

To be sure, assimilation today often follows the same pattern that it has for generations. The children of immigrants, especially those who were born in the United States or come here at a young age, tend to learn English quickly and adopt American habits. Often they end up serving as translators for their parents. Schools exert an important assimilating influence, as does America's consumer society.

But there are important differences in the way immigrants adapt these days, and the influences on them can be double-edged. Gaps in income, education and poverty levels between new immigrants and the native-born are widening, and many of the newcomers are becoming stuck in dead-end jobs with little upward mobility.

Previous waves of immigrants also arrived unskilled and poorly educated. What has changed, however, is the nature of the U.S. economy, which increasingly requires education and skills to assure an upward path.

Although the children of these low-income, poorly educated immigrants may grow up fluent in English, acquire more education than their parents and assimilate in other ways, research shows that "they will lag well behind other students, particularly in college attendance," said Georges Vernez, director of the Center for Research on Immigration Policy at the RAND Corp.

"Today, for instance, native-born Hispanic youths are 30 percent less likely to go on to college after high school and three times less likely to graduate from college than non-Hispanic white students," he told a House hearing last month.

Nationally, Hispanic youths are the most likely to abandon the classroom. Their dropout rate of 29.4 percent is more than double the rate for black Americans and four times higher than the rate for non-Hispanic whites.

Yet the statistics also show that the dropout rate for second-generation Hispanic students is higher than that for first-generation youths, suggesting that assimilation does not always work as intended.

Sociologist Rumbaut said his research has shown that the most disciplined, hardest-working and respectful students "tend to be the most recently arrived." They are the ones "who have not been here long enough to be Americanized into bad habits, into a Beavis and Butt-head perspective of the world."

Since the children of immigrants tend to adapt much faster than their parents, the result is often tension and divisions within families. Immigrants who arrive as adults to escape poverty tend to view their lives here as an improvement over what they left behind, but their children often compare their circumstances to those of other Americans and find themselves lacking. Some gravitate toward a growing gang culture that offers them an identity and an outlet for their alienation, according to researchers.

In Omaha, police, teachers and social workers attribute rising youth gang activity in part to an influx of Hispanic families from California. Ironically, many left California precisely to escape a violent gang subculture there but ended up spreading the infection.

"A number of families who moved from L.A. brought children who were already involved with gangs," said the Rev. Damian Zuerlein, the parish priest of the nearby Roman Catholic church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, which caters to the community's growing Mexican population.

Omaha now has an estimated 1,800 "hard-core" gang members, police say. Two main competing Hispanic gangs are believed to have several hundred members each.

And, as it is across the nation, the high school dropout rate among Hispanics is a growing concern here. In the 1995-96 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available, 12 percent of Hispanic students dropped out of Omaha public secondary schools, double the rate for non-Hispanic whites. According to Mario Remijio, a teacher at South High School here, many Hispanic teenagers drop out to get jobs under pressure from their parents.

In many cases, argues University of Nebraska sociologist Lourdes Gouveia, the problem is not a lack of assimilation to American culture, but too much of it.

"An attachment to one's home country, culture and language can be very positive" for immigrant children in U.S. schools, contends Gouveia. These attachments "help maintain a sense of identity and self-respect when the family drops in status," as often happens when foreigners immigrate. As a result, the Venezuelan-born Gouveia said, citing studies by Rumbaut and others, students who are the least "assimilated" often do better in school than other immigrants and sometimes top even the native born.

On the other hand, some critics contend, the United States should not be abandoning a concept -- the Melting Pot -- that has served the country well for generations, helping to maintain unity through two world wars. They worry that the traditional U.S. commitment to assimilation is breaking down from an incessant advance of "multiculturalism."

"On the whole, there is an American national identity that immigrants ought to be encouraged to assimilate into," said John J. Miller, author of a new book on the issue.

For all the concerns, the recent wave of immigration has brought some notable benefits to Omaha. The city is now home to about 20,000 Latinos, the vast majority of them concentrated in South Omaha. By all accounts, the influx has revived that part of the city. New businesses owned by Hispanics and other immigrants have sprouted up, lending an air of vibrancy to South Omaha's main street.

"Ten years ago, this area was dying," said the Rev. Zuerlein. "Stores were closing, and people were moving out."

The wave of immigration also has stirred new ethnic consciousness among longtime Latino residents, notably the assimilated descendants of Mexicans who came to Nebraska in the early part of this century to work on the railroad and harvest beets.

"When I was a kid, the Hispanics here all just about knew each other," said Virgil Armendariz, a Mexican American businessman who grew up in Omaha. "Now there are hundreds of families. . . . Until recently, we were pretty much invisible."

The influx has helped revive long-forgotten Mexican customs, he said, such as the special celebration of the quincean era, or 15th birthday. "People who were born here are starting to learn more about their culture," Armendariz said.

Next door to the Jacintos, Matt and Sharon Swanson are one of the few native-born families left in the neighborhood. They agree that the immigrant influx has "revitalized" the nearby main drag but say that gang activities, including drive-by shootings and occasional murders, have become a big problem.

"I see a lack of respect for other people's property," said Mickey Dalton, 50, a friend of the Swansons who lives nearby. The neighborhood is destined to turn even more Hispanic, with little prospect for assimilation, he said.

"They're sticking to their own," Dalton said. "When the Czechs moved here, the big push was to learn English. You don't see that so much now. A lot of them don't want to learn English."

At the Guadalupe church recreation hall, several of the young Mexican immigrants who gather weekly say they want to learn the language but find it difficult because they came here in their teens or early twenties and immediately entered a Spanish-speaking milieu. Some say their biggest problems come from Mexican Americans, known as Chicanos, who mock their attempts to speak English.

"I want to join the U.S. Army or Air Force, but because of the language, I can't," said Jose Fernandez, a lean 22-year-old from Guadalajara who briefly attended high school here before dropping out.

"When I'm around Chicanos, I feel ashamed to speak English," said Margaro Ponce, 23, who came to Omaha two years ago to join relatives. "Instead of helping you, they make fun of you," he said in Spanish.

Guillermina Becerra, 22, arrived nearly seven years ago and spent three years at South High, where she took courses in English as a second language. But she made no American friends and never became fluent. "When I went to other classes, I never spoke with anyone," she said. "When I spoke English, I think some people were laughing."

Becerra has four brothers -- one of them a U.S. citizen -- and two sisters here but is not a legal resident herself. She first entered the country with her sister-in-law's green card. She plans to stay in the United States because of greater "opportunities" here and hopes eventually to legalize her status and become a citizen.

But even if she does, she says, "I think I will still feel like a Mexican."

Copyright 1998, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


U.S. Issuing More Visas To Investors
Critics Say 1990 Statute Opens Path to Citizenship For Wealthy Foreigners
William Branigin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, December 29, 1997, Pg. A1

For those with a desire to emigrate and cash to spare, the recent ad in the Times of Oman offered an enticing proposition: "U.S. Green Card for anyone who can show U.S. $ 500,000."

Green cards for sale? Those coveted credit card-size documents, which confer legal U.S. resident status and constitute the first step toward citizenship, on the block for cold cash in a Persian Gulf sultanate?

What appeared on the face of it to be a dubious offer in fact was based on a little-known -- but quite legal -- U.S. government program to encourage immigration by wealthy foreign investors. The investor visa program, passed by Congress in 1990 as a way to compete for foreign capital and create U.S. jobs, reserves up to 10,000 green cards a year for investors and their immediate families.

To qualify, the principals must each create at least 10 full-time U.S. jobs by investing $ 1 million -- or $ 500,000 if the jobs are in certain high-unemployment areas -- in the establishment of a new business, or the rescue or expansion of an existing one. The workers must not be relatives of the investors, but they do not necessarily have to be U.S. citizens.

So far, the program has not really taken off. In recent years, issuances of investor visas have numbered only in the hundreds. In 1996, the latest fiscal year for which figures are available, 936 people received them, including spouses and children. More than 80 percent of the visas went to Asians, mostly from Taiwan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong.

In part because of promotions like the one by a private consulting firm in Oman, however, the investor visa program gradually is becoming better known around the world. Its boosters expect the 1997 numbers to show a sharp increase, perhaps double the 1996 total. And with Hong Kong now under Beijing's control and Asian economies in turmoil, the promoters hope to attract even greater numbers of wealthy Asians.

The program has spurred an industry of consultants and facilitators who link investors with business opportunities in the United States, handle the visa applications and even arrange financing for the required investment money. The industry leader is a Greenbelt-based firm called AIS Inc. (originally American Immigration Services) that specializes in pooling investors together to bankroll larger projects. It says it has obtained visa approvals for more than 1,000 investors who have committed more than $ 500 million to U.S. businesses since 1991.

The firm boasts a high-profile management team led by Diego C. Asencio, a retired senior U.S. diplomat, as president. Gene McNary, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, is one of the company's top lawyers. Its board of directors includes former ambassadors Stephen W. Bosworth and Jack F. Matlock Jr., former assistant secretaries of state William Clark and Richard W. Murphy, retired Democratic congressman John Bryant of Texas and Prescott S. Bush, the brother of former president George Bush and chairman of the private USA-China Chamber of Commerce.

Among the projects to which AIS has channeled investments are restaurants, hotels, apparel and equipment manufacturing companies and a chain of retirement homes. The investors include businessmen, bankers, doctors and other professionals.

The visa program's advocates argue that it brings in immigrants with needed capital, saves troubled companies and creates or preserves jobs. By contrast, they point out, growing numbers of immigrants who enter the United States under the current system, which stresses family ties, are poor, unskilled and uneducated, and thus often a burden to society.

But critics of the scheme say there is something unsettling about marketing immigrant visas like a commodity. Although the green cards are "conditional" for two years under the program, pending verification that the investment has been made and the jobs created, the transaction is viewed by some as only one step removed from selling U.S. citizenship.

"If it's one step, it's a mile wide," said McNary, who disputes that view. The program lately has met with some recalcitrance within the INS and the State Department, just as it did in 1990 when congressional opponents charged it would allow well-off foreigners to "buy green cards," he said. But that notion is misguided, McNary insisted, because the participants "are investing in our economy and serving the national interest. These are good people who blend into American culture."

In its literature, AIS describes the investor visa program as offering "the best of both worlds": the security and convenience of "alternate residency" in the United States, with no real requirement to live here full time. An AIS brochure touts the program as less restrictive and expensive than similar plans in other countries such as Canada, which requires investor immigrants to stay there at least 183 days of the year. The U.S. program also sets no requirements on age, prior business training or experience, education level or language skill, the brochure points out.

"The only requirement for the investor," it says, "is that he have the required net worth and initial capital," which must come from a "lawful source" but may include gifts, inheritances and bank loans.

The AIS program is geared to those who want U.S. resident status without actually having to run the businesses they invest in or live where they are located. To that end, it uses a provision in the law allowing the investor to be a "limited partner" in the business to meet a requirement for an "active" management role. It also guarantees applicants a return on their investment after they receive their green cards.

Investors normally must come up with $ 35,000 to cover various fees, plus at least $ 100,000 of the minimum capital investment. AIS then can arrange a bank loan for the remaining $ 400,000 investment amount, its literature says.

Many applicants seek green cards not so much for themselves, but for their families, AIS officials said.

"They do it so their kids can go to college here and work here," said Andrew Palmer, one of the firm's vice presidents. For students, legal resident status means "lower tuition costs" at many U.S. universities, "facilitates admittance to medical school" and allows employment during and after their studies, the company says.

A drawback of permanent resident status is that it subjects the immigrant to U.S. taxes on worldwide income, even if the person does not live full time in the United States. However, the law contains a loophole allowing spouses and children to be the applicants, rather than the family's bread-winner. Many wealthy heads of families choose to remain in their homelands and run their businesses without taking the U.S. tax hit.

For those who want the green cards themselves, AIS also offers advice on "financial planning . . . to improve their tax consequences," said Daniel Green, another of the company's vice presidents. "It's not a tax avoidance issue. It's simply a tax planning issue."

Local businesses that have received investments through the program -- mostly from Asians -- include a Fuddruckers restaurant in Tysons Corner, a Ramada hotel in Springfield and the Sunrise Retirement Center in Fairfax. The cash-strapped retirement center received about $ 2.5 million from eight investors, most of them from South Korea, who were paid back in three years, Palmer said.

They were committed to investing $ 1 million each but were able to receive their green cards by paying much less than that because promissory notes for the balance were not yet due by the time the business recovered and bought back their shares, Palmer said. Some of the investors still live in South Korea but travel to the United States at least twice a year to meet the minimum requirements for holding a green card, he added.

Now, he said, the INS wants to tighten the rules by requiring investors to pay their shares completely before getting their permanent green cards.

Compared with most other family- or employment-based U.S. visa categories, the investor program "is a much faster way of securing a green card," said Brian Telfer, who runs a private immigration consulting firm in Dubai and advertises his services in the Times of Oman and other papers. The ads are directed toward third-country "expatriates" living in the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, since the local rulers "take a real dim view of their nationals emigrating anywhere," he said.

Telfer also advertises "second passports from U.S. $ 75,000," a reference to what he calls "economic citizenship" in such countries as Ireland and several Caribbean and Pacific island states. Of these, he said, Grenada, a former British colony, offers "the best value for money" because its passport affords "visa-free travel" to Canada, Britain and "a number of other First World countries."

Copyright 1997, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


Risky Passage to America's Back Door
Thousands of Illegal Migrants Attempt Boat Trip to Puerto Rico
William Branigin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, May 22, 1996, p. A1

IN THE MONA PASSAGE -- Amid the chatter of radio traffic between the Coast Guard cutter Vigorous and a helicopter it had launched on patrol came snatches of rapid, urgent Spanish from somewhere in this treacherous strait.

Then, the static that was garbling the elusive broadcast cleared long enough to yield the voice of a woman with a desperate plea. "Estamos en peligro" ("We are in danger"), she said before fading out again.

So began a dramatic search and rescue operation that ultimately saved the lives of 19 Cuban "boat people," including two children, who were trying to enter Puerto Rico illegally by crossing the Mona Passage from the Dominican Republic.

Crammed aboard a 24-foot cabin cruiser that was disabled and slowly sinking in the turbulent, shark-infested waters, the Cubans were weak and dehydrated after two days without food or drink.

Like thousands of Dominicans and other illegal migrants from around the world, they were making the risky crossing in hopes of using Puerto Rico as a springboard to reach the United States. But in saving their lives, the Coast Guard also dashed their dreams.

While most U.S. resources in the fight against illegal immigration have been focused on the southwestern border with Mexico, the Coast Guard and Border Patrol in Puerto Rico have been struggling to cope with an escalating flow of illegal migrants and drugs through America's "back door."

As a U.S. commonwealth whose people are American citizens, Puerto Rico has become a major way station for illegal immigrants. Once on the island, they can try to pass as Puerto Ricans or visitors from the mainland and fly to the United States without having to show a passport or pass a regular immigration or customs inspection.

Most of the boat people who try to reach Puerto Rico are natives of the Dominican Republic, 90 miles to the west across the Mona Passage. But those apprehended by the Coast Guard or Border Patrol include a smattering of other nationalities: Chinese, Cuban, Haitian, even Macedonian, a dozen of whom were caught last month.

Up to 20,000 migrants attempt the crossing every year, said Capt. Thomas Bernard, the regional Coast Guard commander in Puerto Rico. Dominicans typically pay $ 300 to $ 500 each to be smuggled across the passage in small boats known as yolas, but Chinese are usually charged 10 times more, he said.

"They take unbelievable risks," said Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Blizard, the Coast Guard's regional law enforcement chief. "We see boats, in 8-foot seas, that are only 30 or 40 feet long with 100 people in them and no navigation equipment."

Often, however, the yolas are difficult to detect. They ride low in the water and thus can frequently elude the radars of the Coast Guard cutters that patrol the Mona Passage. They commonly sail in darkness and go slowly during daylight to avoid leaving a telltale wake. Smugglers often paint their yolas seawater blue and cloak them with tarps when they see an approaching surveillance plane. They also have been known to cover their human cargo and outboard engines with wet blankets to defeat heat-detecting infrared devices.

With only 19 agents to cover 500 miles of Puerto Rican and Virgin Islands coastline, the Border Patrol is hard pressed to catch illegal migrants once they reach shore. More than 6,600 illegal aliens were reported apprehended by the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard while being smuggled to Puerto Rico last year, up 43 percent from 1994. So far this fiscal year, 4,800 have been caught. But the Border Patrol estimates that two-thirds of the illegal migrants who reach Puerto Rico elude capture.

Two days on the Vigorous, a 210-foot medium endurance cutter based at Cape May, N.J., showed how difficult it can be to spot yolas in the choppy channel, whose turbulence is caused by a clash of Atlantic and Caribbean currents. Despite intelligence reports that migrant-laden yolas had departed the Dominican Republic, the Vigorous encountered only innocent fishing vessels, yachts, and pilot whales after arriving in the passage for patrol duty in early May.

All that changed Wednesday, May 15, after a Coast Guard helicopter took off from the cutter's flight deck. Initially, the sketchy distress call, first heard by a reporter on the helicopter, was greeted with skepticism. The flight commander, Lt. Alan W. Carver, 35, of Des Moines, cautioned that it could be a "diversion" to lure the chopper away from a yola.

But then the Vigorous began picking up transmissions describing an increasingly dire situation aboard the stricken vessel. The boat, the Valentina, was adrift west of Mona Island and taking on water. Several of the 19 Cubans on board were severely dehydrated. But as the French-built HH65A Dolphin helicopter scoured the vast blue expanse below, there was still no sign of the Valentina.

Finally, a white cabin cruiser with a black top came into view. As the helicopter approached, the Cubans began waving their arms and a red T-shirt. Their condition was worsening, they radioed the Vigorous. One of the women was unconscious.

Now the Coast Guard faced a series of crucial decisions. Should the helicopter try to hoist one or two of the most seriously ill people aboard and risk capsizing the boat if others also rushed to join them? Would the boat stay afloat long enough for the Vigorous to reach the scene?

The helicopter was ordered to keep circling the boat so that the cutter could find it. That presented another problem: Fuel was running low. Rummaging in the rear of the chopper, aviation machinist Mike Arnold, 34, of Jacksonville, Fla., found an emergency bag with some small packets of drinking water and lowered it to the Cubans. Then pilot Charlie Simpson, 33, of Dublin, Va., flew the bright orange helicopter back to the cutter.

When the Vigorous reached the Valentina an hour later, Cmdr. Eddie V. Mack, the cutter's captain, declared the badly listing boat unseaworthy and sent launches to rescue its passengers.

As they were brought aboard the cutter, several of the Cubans were close to collapse from hunger, thirst, seasickness and exposure to the scorching sun. A few wept with apparent relief as they were taken to the cutter's fantail, given water and examined by a Coast Guard corpsman.

Recovering from their ordeal, the Cubans said they had left their homeland at different times and by different means, some clandestinely by boat three years ago and others legally by airliner within the last several months. They came together in the Dominican Republic, pooled their resources to buy a boat at the southern port of La Romana and hatched a plan to cross the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico, then fly to the United States to join relatives in Miami and New York.

Gabriel Velasquez Riberon, 33, said he was on active duty in the Cuban army when he fled in January 1994 by boat en route to Florida with 37 compatriots. The boat ran out of fuel, but an American fishing vessel took them to the Dominican Republic, Velasquez said. Since then, he was been "wandering without a passport," doing odd jobs and occasionally receiving money from an uncle in Miami.

Roberto Martinez, 51, said he was sent four years ago by the Cuban government to work as a mechanical engineer at a company in the Dominican Republic. When he recently quit his job and refused to return to Cuba, he said, Cuban officials called him a "traitor" and began threatening him.

"There are lots of agents of Fidel Castro in the Dominican Republic," Martinez said.

David Pupo Peralta, 32, a former welder in Cuba, said he was jailed for 18 months after trying to leave the island in 1991.

He said he managed to flee by boat in February 1993 with his wife, two children, a sister-in-law and a niece, first landing on Grand Cayman Island and later traveling to the Dominican Republic in hopes of getting U.S. visas.

His wife, Maribel Rivas Escobar, 26, suffered severe dehydration on the two-day trip aboard the Valentina and lay barely conscious on the cutter's deck as a corpsman treated her while her worried children looked on.

Pupo's niece, Lisette de los Rios, 19, said the family lived from hand to mouth in the Dominican Republic, unable to get regular work because they were residing there illegally.

"This is my fourth time to try to get to the U.S., and finally I made it," she said.

Then, as she looked at the Coast Guard crew members gathered on the fantail, a note of doubt crept into her voice. "We're okay here, aren't we?" she asked.

She added, "I don't want to go back to the Dominican Republic now. I'd rather die than go back. If I have to go back to the Dominican Republic, just leave me on the boat I came on."

In the end, neither that nor sailing on to Puerto Rico was an option. About an hour after the Cubans were rescued, the Valentina sank. And on Saturday, the Coast Guard handed the 19 over to Dominican immigration authorities who took them into custody.

Copyright 1996, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


Nation's Political Asylum System Draws Criticism From Both Sides
Handling of Contrasting Cases Illustrates Inconsistency in Process
William Branigin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, July 7, 1996, Pg. A3

After a four-month voyage for which smugglers charged him $ 31,000, Gao Qiu arrived in New York with a false Japanese passport in April 1993. He requested political asylum based on the one-child family planning policies of his native China, was released by airport immigration officials and granted a work permit pending a decision on his case.

When Fauziya Kasinga showed up at Newark International Airport in December 1994 with a false British passport and claimed asylum based on her fear of ritual female circumcision in Togo, she was immediately detained and spent more than a year in a succession of jails.

The two cases with vastly different outcomes -- the first largely unnoted and the second highly publicized -- illustrate contrasting aspects of a hotly debated issue in America: political asylum.

Groups on opposite sides of the issue generally reflect a debate over the current levels of legal immigration.

Immigrants' rights supporters and other pro-immigration groups criticize the government for detaining asylum seekers who arrive illegally with claims later deemed legitimate.

Advocates of lower immigration levels argue, essentially, that too many are let in. Despite reform efforts by the Clinton administration, they say, the U.S. asylum system is out of control, overwhelmed by fraudulent claims and subject to increasing abuse because of an ever-expanding definition of persecution.

There is little dispute that the system is often arbitrary. Whether an illegally entering asylum seeker gets detained on arrival or "paroled" into the country often depends not on the merits of the claim, but on the availability of detention space.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) says it has no overall statistics on how many asylum seekers are detained and how many are released on arrival. But it is clear that thousands get into the country by making such claims, even though they may have arrived with false documents or none at all -- having handed them off to smugglers aboard an aircraft.

Unlike refugees, who are screened by U.S. officials abroad and whose admissions are limited by annual quotas, asylum seekers are a self-selected group not subject to any numerical limits. Because asylum, as opposed to refugee status, is granted to people on U.S. soil, an applicant must first reach the United States, which often depends on a smuggling ring's ingenuity, the payment of large bribes and fees en route and the quality of fake documents they rely on to get to the United States.

From about 3,000 applicants a year in the 1970s, the number of asylum seekers has risen sharply, exceeding 146,400 in fiscal 1994, 149,500 last year and 90,700 in the first six months of the current fiscal year, according to the INS. The totals include more than 147,400 cases under a special settlement for Central Americans, but exclude 20,000 to 50,000 "defensive" claims filed each year by people seeking to avoid deportation.

More than 486,500 asylum seekers are in a backlog waiting for their claims to be adjudicated. For all practical purposes, they are immigrants, although they are not counted as such under any of the admissions categories set by Congress. Many have been here for years and are considered unlikely ever to be deported, even if their claims are eventually rejected, because they have put down roots and can use other legal avenues to stay.

In some ways, the system's defects and contradictions are highlighted by the contrasting experiences of Gao Qiu and Kasinga.

The Togolese woman, who was 17 when she fled her West African homeland to avoid an arranged marriage and ritual circumcision, encountered some of the harshest treatment the immigration system has to offer.

She was sent to the notorious Esmor detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., where she says abusive guards shackled and isolated her and where, in June 1995, she was tear-gassed and beaten during a riot. Shipped to prisons in Pennsylvania after the privately run Esmor facility was shut down, Kasinga says she was strip-searched and locked up with common criminals before her ordeal ended with her release in April and the approval of her asylum claim last month.

Gao Qiu (pronounced Gow Chu), the son of a factory accountant, left his wife and child in his native Fujian Province in December 1992 and, steered by an alien-smuggling organization, passed through Hong Kong, London and three Latin American countries before landing at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport with a forged passport identifying him as a Japanese student. There he claimed asylum.

After some perfunctory questioning, he was not only free to go, but was immediately eligible for a work-authorization document under rules that have since been changed.

Gao Qiu spent two days in New York, then was driven to Washington to work in a restaurant here. He soon became involved in a gang of recent Chinese immigrants -- asylum claimants like himself -- who preyed on other new Chinese arrivals in the District's Chinatown area. The gang would kidnap their countrymen and hold them in D.C. safe houses, often beating and torturing them, until their friends or families here or in China came up with thousands of dollars in ransom.

Agents of the FBI and the Washington district office of the INS broke up the ring in April 1994, arresting several gang members, including the lanky, bespectacled Gao Qiu, who was known by Chinese aliases meaning "Tall Guy" and "Four Eyes." After a trial last year in U.S. District Court here, he was sentenced to 11 years and three months in prison.

Interviewed in the D.C. jail before he was moved to a federal prison, Gao Qiu maintained his innocence, saying he was "betrayed" by a childhood friend who worked at the same restaurant and drew him into the ring. But Gao Qiu, 29, acknowledged that he had come to the United States "to work" and improve his lot economically, rather than out of any opposition to coercive family planning.

According to State Department officials, more than 90 percent of Chinese asylum claimants come from three counties of Fujian Province, where alien smuggling has become a cottage industry, and the vast majority of their cases are judged to be fraudulent. One evaluator reported coming across hundreds of applications that used identical language or listed the same New York address.

"All this abuses the system," tying up personnel and resources, the official said. Yet many unqualified applicants get through, he said, because there is "tremendous pressure to reduce the backlog," and the easiest way to do so is to grant asylum.

In seeking to address problems with the asylum system, the Clinton administration has stopped automatically giving applicants work permits, which had become a major incentive for phony claims by illegal aliens seeking jobs.

The administration also is working to increase detention capacity, contracting with private firms to open a new facility in New York this month and reopen the former Esmor center in New Jersey under new management in September. At the same time, the INS is moving to "revitalize" a four-year-old asylum prescreening program aimed at making more consistent early decisions on who should be detained and who should be released while their claims are being decided, said INS general counsel David Martin.

"We don't want to use our detention space on people who are likely to prevail on their asylum claims," he said. "We'd rather use those beds for criminals." While the effort predates the Kasinga case, he acknowledged that her ordeal "has focused some attention on the desire of having a good asylum prescreening program."

But even as the government tries to detain more of those who arrive illegally with spurious claims, critics say, it keeps stretching the definition of persecution, which U.S. law says must be based on "race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."

Under pressure from feminist, antiabortion and gay rights groups, government agencies and immigration judges have ruled since 1994 that applicants may qualify for asylum based on declarations of homosexuality, assertions of women's rights, opposition to coercive birth control, fear of female circumcision and even spousal abuse in their home countries.

Potentially, say opponents of current immigration policies, the expanded asylum criteria could apply to hundreds of millions of women in China, Africa and various Muslim countries.

While no one expects a sudden massive influx, "there is no question that extending the grounds for asylum is going to give more people an opportunity to get into the United States," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies and an advocate of lower immigration levels. "It's a sort of bait that we wave in front of people around the world" who might not otherwise qualify for admission.

"The system is still beyond broken," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), a strong supporter of expedited removal procedures and other measures to deter illegal immigration. Of asylum seekers allowed into the country at the JFK and Miami international airports last year on condition they return for hearings on their claims, 94 percent were never heard from again, he said.

"Economic reasons are not a justification for asylum, yet that's what the overwhelming majority are coming here for," Gallegly said. "This is a great conduit to illegally enter the country."

Ultimately, the broadening of "victim status" and the growing numbers of claimants risk undermining public support for America's long-cherished asylum tradition, critics say.

"If the American people see this process as a sham," said Rosemary Jenks of the Center for Immigration Studies, "the end result is that eventually we're not going to have an asylum policy."

Copyright 1996, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.