Immigration deadline brings lines at U.S. offices
(CNN) -- Illegal immigrants crowded federal offices Monday as a midnight deadline to legalize their residency in the United States approached.
Under the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act passed in December, April 30 was the last day for illegal immigrants to file U.S. residency papers after paying $1,000.
"We have long lines. We have anticipated long lines," said Elaine Komis, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington.
Komis said many INS offices in major cities plan to extend their business hours to accommodate the crush. But she said many of those eligible do not need to visit INS offices to meet the deadline: If the required paperwork is postmarked by midnight, they retain their eligibility, she said.
About 500 people had come to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Atlanta, Georgia, to get residency papers by mid-afternoon. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, lines stretched around the block. In Houston, Texas, immigrants seeking to become legal residents began to appear outside INS offices at 1 a.m.
In March, the INS processed more than 131,000 visa petitions, Komis said -- the highest volume ever in one month. Since January, the agency has received more than 1 million phone calls a month, about 25 percent more than normal.
The INS estimates that up to 600,000 people are eligible for legal residency under the law. Without proper papers filed by midnight Monday, those people would have to leave the country and apply for re-admission -- a process that can take years.
INS officials emphasize that the law is not an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"We're not giving them any kind of special permission while their case is pending," said Rosemary Melville, INS district director in Atlanta.
To be eligible, an immigrant must be related by blood or marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
The days approaching the deadline saw a run on city halls and county clerks' offices as couples lined up to get married to make one partner eligible for permanent residency.
An immigration attorney in Miami said about half the people lined up to process their marriages there didn't need to be. "But they're very scared, and they're very fidgety about the whole thing," Mario Lovo said.
If immigration officials discover the marriage is a sham, couples could be hit with a fine of more than $250,000 -- and the immigrant could also face deportation.
But couples like Orville McKoy, a legal U.S. resident, and girlfriend Janet Mantock -- both Jamaicans -- say that's not a problem.
"This is not just a thing where as soon as we are married, everything will be straight," McKoy said. "We still have to prove our legitimacy, our love and everything."
Correspondents Brian Cabell and Brian Palmer contributed to this report.
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