U.S. visas will expire for millions of Mexicans

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U.S. visas will expire for millions of Mexicans

Many lack new cards required by Monday

By Marisa Taylor and Sandra Dibble STAFF WRITERS

September 27, 2001

As many as 3 million Mexicans who cross the border legally to shop, vacation or take short business trips won't be able to enter the United States beginning Monday because their border crossing cards will have expired.

The Mexican visitors were supposed to have had the cards replaced with new, high-tech laser visas by Sunday, a deadline set by Congress.

A measure seeking to extend the deadline for a year is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But no action has been taken, and Congress recessed yesterday until next week.

Immigration experts said Congress is probably hesitant to act quickly on any immigration measures in light of the recent terrorist attacks.

"It's not necessarily because Congress thinks terrorists are getting into the country with border-crossing visas," said Gordon Hanson, a UCSD economics professor who tracks immigration issues. "But we're reconsidering our immigration policy and the ease with which folks get into our country."

People who have border crossing cards can't travel more than 25 miles from the border or stay longer than 72 hours without an additional permit..

About 2 million of the old border crossing cards have been replaced. But as many as 3 million of the cards -- known in Spanish as the mica or the pasaporte local -- are still in circulation.

U.S. officials said the exact number of people who still need the replacement visas, which cost $45 and require background checks, is difficult to track because some people may have died or immigrated.

Officials at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana estimate that about 200,000 of the old cards are still in circulation on the Baja California peninsula. About 600,000 have been replaced.

Those who haven't renewed their visas face months of waiting for a new one. A temporary processing facility set up in Tijuana by the U.S. government has been receiving 800 to 1,000 applications a day. At the consulate, where first-time laser visa applicants are screened, 500 to 600 applications a day have been received.

"We can't do much more than that," said Richard Gonzalez, the U.S. consul general in Tijuana.

As a result, those who apply today for laser visas won't get appointments for interviews until the end of November. As an emergency option, people with expired cards can apply for a one-day pass, which costs about $170.

Any interruption in cross-border traffic would be a blow to the San Diego-Baja California economy, which is already suffering because of long border waits. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, border authorities have been inspecting people and cars more closely -- and slowly.

As a result, the usual flow of shoppers and vacationers across the border has slowed, cutting into the business of U.S. and Mexican merchants.

U.S. consular officials said they expect "a lot of turmoil."

"People who live along the border have a life that takes place on both sides of the border," Gonzalez said. " . . . People who are unable to cross are in trouble; their lives are severely handicapped."

The Sunday cutoff could even prevent people from getting to their jobs in the United States. It is illegal to use a border crossing card to work in the United States, but the law defies the reality of the border region, where many homeowners and businesses depend on illegal workers.

"I know some women who are biting their nails because they're not going to get their documents in time," said Francisco Garcia, a Tijuana attorney. "They're people who live day by day and are their family's only support."

But Consuelo Delgadillo, a San Ysidro resident, thinks people who cross to work using the border crossing cards would be more likely to renew their visas.

"The people who have renewed are people who are working because they're more careful about it," she said.

In 1996 Congress passed legislation requiring border crossing cards to be replaced by laser visas, which are designed to prevent visa fraud, a problem that has ballooned in recent years. The original replacement deadline was Sept. 30 1999. But Congress later extended the deadline to Sunday.

Many people simply put off the application process until it was too late.

"People are in denial," Gonzalez said. "People have been waiting, thinking it will just go away."

But Francisco Garcia, a Tijuana attorney who hasn't exchanged his border crossing card yet, said he had a valid excuse.

Garcia said his old card, which he had for 19 years, was stolen along with all of his identification when thieves broke into his house in July. He eventually got his documents replaced, but because he was in law school he couldn't prove he could support himself economically -- an important requirement to obtain a visa.

Garcia said he knows others who have experienced delays obtaining Mexican identification documents such as birth certificates, passports and voter registration cards that they need to apply for laser visas. "Many people have complications getting their documents from Mexican authorities," he said.

People have many reasons for putting off their applications, he said. "It's not necessarily because of laziness or disinterest."

Staff writer Janine Zuņiga contributed to this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 27, 2001


WIRE: 10/01/2001 3:55 pm ET

Mexicans turned back at borders for not renewing old permit to high- tech card

The Associated Press

McALLEN, Texas (AP) About 2 million Mexicans failed to convert their border-crossing cards into new high-tech IDs by the Oct. 1 deadline, and hundreds were turned back Monday when they tried to get into the United States. Some said they were unaware of the cutoff date for getting the new "laser visas," while others said they had been expecting the U.S. government to grant an extension, as some members of Congress have requested.

The new ID cards are required along the 1,962-mile-long U.S.-Mexican boundary in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Lopez Flores, 66, traveled 4{ hours from the interior town of Aldama, Mexico, so she could go to JC Penney in McAllen to buy a new pair of glasses.

"They told me this wasn't good anymore. I had no idea," Flores said, shocked, as she held up her passport.

One Texas entry point had turned away about 200 people since midnight, border officials said.

In Arizona, about 100 people were turned back from the state's seven ports of entry during the first half of the day, said Russell Ahr, Immigration and Naturalization Service deputy district director.

"The awareness of the new card is greater than we probably expected, and the inconvenience has been minimal," Ahr said.

Congress mandated the use of the new cards in 1996 but has extended the deadline at least twice.

About 5.5 million of the old permits, which look like a driver's license, were issued. The new ones arrive 60 to 90 days after they are applied for and feature fingerprints and data encrypted in magnetic strips, which officials hope can prevent fraud and forgery.

The cards permit Mexicans to enter the United States and travel within 25 miles of the border for up to 72 hours at a time, and are important to cities like McAllen, which in the past decade have exploded with strip malls and theme restaurants catering to residents from both countries.

Some border points still lack the machinery to read the cards. Without the machines, U.S. authorities must eyeball them the same way they did the old ones, in essence rendering the new security features meaningless.

The State Department, which issues the cards, has asked Congress to extend the deadline again, but lawmakers have yet to vote on it. Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairmen of the House and Senate immigration subcommittees, support another extension.

In a letter marked urgent and sent to President Bush on Saturday, Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, predicted "a major disruption in the commerce of the entire southern border" if an extension was not granted. He said the lack of equipment made such an order especially important.

For Blanca Guevara de Arias, Sunday was the last chance for a long while to walk over the footbridge to the United States and shop at discount stores that offer bulk toilet paper, tortilla chips and generic canned cola.

She usually makes the trip over the Rio Grande every 15 days. But now she will have to wait two months until the paperwork for her new laser visa is processed.

Maria Isabel Sepulveda, who works at a hospital laboratory in Mexico, has also applied for the new card. On Sunday, she came across the border to get a replacement starter for her 1981 car.

Pulling out her faded "cita," or border-crossing permit, she said she will have to wait until December, when her new card comes through, to return to the United States and buy jewelry for herself and gifts for others.

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 01, 2001.

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