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Immigration Law Complexities Can Be Confusing

By Bill Zeeble, KERA reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: It's emotionally charged - this illegal immigration issue.

Protesters: Enforce the law, Enforce the law, Enforce the law!

Zeeble: Backers of the Farmers Branch ordinance want immigration officials to rid their community of illegal immigrants. They say that's not being done, & Farmers Branch is suffering. So how could the law be enforced? Ken Wincorn is a local immigration attorney.

Ken Wincorn, Immigration Attorney: In practical terms what you would have to do to enforce the law as it exists now is to raid most fast food restaurants, hotels, the construction industry, janitorial services, just about every business , many businesses in the south. Everything that isn't high tech and take away the workers.

Zeeble; Government officials, including President Bush, say with 11 million or more illegal immigrants already in the U.S., deportation is neither practical nor realistic. Meanwhile, many people also wonder why immigrants can't just cross the border legally in the first place, with proper papers?

David Swaim, Immigration attorney: The immigration process in our country doesn't permit these type of individuals to legally enter the United States

Zeeble: David Swaim is another north Texas immigration lawyer who often talks about myth vs. reality of immigration law.

Swaim: We don't have any categories, for most practical purposes, for skilled and unskilled labor. So if you are en employer in Farmers Branch or anywhere else and you own a construction company and go to the immigration service and say I can't find Americans to do this work, I need to bring in people from Mexico or Honduras, or wherever, the immigration service would tell you well we have no way of doing that.

Zeeble: Swaim says if an immigrant has qualifying relatives already here, legal immigration's easier. But attorney Ken Wincorn says it could still take as many as 18 years.

Wincorn: Usually people are coming not because they want to come to visit, they're coming because of economic pressures. Political pressures and they couldn't wait.

Zeeble: So, says Wincorn, they cross borders - break the law - often to support their families with jobs, or to save their own lives. Still, many are here illegally, breaking the law. Shouldn't that be enough to round up and deport them, asks retired Marine, Carol Coyer? He was among dozens of citizens at the Farmers Branch council meeting who backed the anti- illegal immigrant ordinance.

Carol Coyer, retired Marine: To me, it's a law and order thing. One law's as good as another, if you're going to break one, what's the next one you're going to break?

Zeeble: The law, however, is not always that black and white. Ken Wincorn says there's a huge difference between someone who commits a harsh criminal offense like assault, versus an immigration offense which is labeled as a civil violation, punishable by deportation.

Wincorn: We have Class-C misdemeanors to first-degree felonies. People who commit traffic offenses, we don't throw them in prison. Certainly they broke law.

Zeeble: Wincorn says crossing the border is illegal, but not a felony

Wincorn: There's a huge difference in degree.

Zeeble: Whatever the difference, the law requires federal officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce immigration law, not local police, city code workers, or landlords. That's partly the basis for the landlord suit filed against Farmers Branch last Friday, and Tuesday's suit filed by MALDEF - the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund - and the ACLU of Texas. The ACLU's immigration policy expert is Becky Bernhardt.

Becky Bernhardt, ACLU of Texas Immigration, Border & National Security Policy Director: There are federal statutes that regulate immigration, and immigration is the province of the federal government. They break federal civil immigration law. Focusing on their violation of federal immigration law and then saying they shouldn't be able to live in an apartment, those 2 things aren't really connected, it doesn't really make much sense.

Zeeble: The attorney for Farmers Branch offered no comment, citing pending litigation. City leaders take up the anti-illegal immigrant ordinance again January 8th. They could rescind the ordinance then, and could call for a city-wide vote on the renter ordinance. For KERA 90.1 I'm Bill Zeeble