Caribbean immigrants in New York City are feeling the effects of several new immigration reform laws. Although New York’s immigration problems are acute—as the rage seen in the Abner Louima torture scandal attests—reform had to come from the federal level, since Mayor Giuliani continues to welcome massive immigration as a boon to the local economy.

On January 14, Congress ended a pilot program established under a provision known as 245(1), which gave “undocumented” aliens the right to stay in the country legally while their applications for citizenship were under review, though it also imposed a $1,000 fine. Over the opposition of Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Congress had repeatedly extended the program, bowing to pressure from activists and pro-immigration politicians like New York State Senator John Sampson, whose Brooklyn constituency includes one of the largest concentrations of Caribbean immigrants anywhere. Launched in September 1994, the program (discussed in a series of articles by Michael D. Roberts in the New York-based CaribNews) drew record numbers of applications for citizenship—1.6 million in the fiscal year ending in September 1997. Unable to process so many applications by the middle of January’, the INS bureaucracy left many immigrants with “deportable” status.

Compounding immigrants’ woes, the requirements are also stricter now for citizens who want to “sponsor” immigrants. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Act’s “affidavit of support” provision, which finally went into effect in December 1997, requires green card-holding sponsors of immigrants (their relatives, in most cases) to submit forms accompanied by two years’ tax returns proving that their own earnings are at least 25 percent over the official poverty line. While this is a potential problem for immigrants of any background, Irwin Claire of the Queens-based Caribbean Immigrant Services (CIS) told the CaribNews that “within the Caribbean-American community, 2 5 to 30 percent of the population could not meet the requirement.” Those who cannot meet it have the option of finding a co-signer who earns at least 40 percent of the required income.

The federal government, from October 25 to November 25, ran a green-card lottery, which offered an interesting example of post-1965 immigration priorities. Twenty-three thousand green cards were set aside for newcomers from Europe, 22,000 for those from Africa, 7,000 for those from Asia, and 2,400 for those from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The lottery seemed to imply that newcomers from Europe are (marginally) more desirable than those from other places, and that there is not much need for those from Haiti or Trinidad (or Jamaica, which was excluded altogether). For Caribbean immigrants, “the chances are about 1 in 1 million. But a lot of immigrants . . . have no other choice,” Ernest Emmanuel, a candidate for the 45th Congressional District, told the CaribNews.

Actually, they do. Not only is there a large black market for green cards (immigrants have been warned about con men who claim to offer the needed documents on the cheap), but illegals who have a spouse with legal status have less to worry about—an American citizen filing on behalf of an illegal tends to have much better luck than an illegal on his own. In order to gain such leverage, record numbers of immigrants have been getting married—”officials at the city’s marriage license bureau have reported a 15 percent increase in weddings at City Hall in recent weeks,” according to the CaribNews. And an unknown number of immigrants have simply “gone underground” to avoid getting caught and deported.

Getting married is a shrewd strategy, and one that is actively promoted by certain advocacy groups. Irwin Claire told me that CIS not only encourages Caribbean immigrants to “fall in love,” but also urges them to hand over the paperwork to siblings who hold green cards and who can file on behalf of the illegals. Apart from helping immigrants gain legal status, Claire says, CIS also urges those Caribbeans with green cards to become naturalized, so that they can vote to turn the tide against Washington’s “draconian” new measures.

“The United States appears to be going through one of its periodic episodes of immigrant-bashing,” states an editorial in the Weekly Gleaner, a Caribbean newspaper. The editorial goes on to argue that things will quickly settle down again, and the demographic revolution that has been remaking America will proceed as before. Although 245(1) has finally come to an end, there are still too many loopholes in immigration policy for lasting and effective reform.