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Standing Clear of Immigration’s Gray Areas

Bracha Stein

Modern means of transportation have enabled families to travel even halfway around the world. While it’s never been easier to fly back to the United States for a simchah, a zman in Lakewood, or “for shidduchim,” it’s not always simple, especially if you are returning with a spouse of a foreign country, a baby born overseas, or if you have violated the terms of an entrance visa. Mishpacha takes a look at some of the obstacle that immigrants have stumbled upon that can make one’s visit to the US miserable.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jokes about stuffy bureaucrats, red tape, and forms filled out in triplicate may be clichéd, but the United States is no exception to the rule that every country has its own internal culture and complex maze of red tape that a visiting tourist or new immigrant must contend with. The endless line of travelers snaking its way around passport or border control may seem insufferable, but even the frustration of that wait may pale in comparison with the possibilities of being denied entry or having to serve jail time.

Many travelers and would-be immigrants are stunned when they learn that a previous breach of even a seemingly- minor visa infraction can result in serious consequences. So while the jokes abound, they’re no laughing matter.

“We get calls constantly from people who are in trouble with the law,” says Leah Zagelbaum, director of constituent services at Agudath Israel of America. “They’re unfamiliar with the laws, and unfortunately, they break them.” Mrs. Zagelbaum can relate a nightmarish collection of stories about individuals who ran afoul of the law — or those who were simply unlucky enough to get ensnared in a web of bureaucracy. There’s the chassan who was almost denied entry to the US weeks before his Lakewood wedding; the man who couldn’t fly to his father’s funeral because he was being barred from reentering the US; and the more dramatic example of the teenager who lent his passport to his chavrusa, only to discover that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were charging him with criminal activity.

This is particularly problematic in the Jewish community, where there is a perception that protektzia or an earnest appeal can overcome many obstacles. Many people also extrapolate from their experience with Israel’s more selective enforcement of violations involving foreign citizens. Those who have successfully toyed with Israeli law are confident that they will succeed with the same approach toward the US.

“United States immigration law is very complicated,” says Drew Steinberg, a supervising attorney with Murthy Law Firm in Owings Mills, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. “It’s dynamic, and it often defies common sense. Government policies change all the time. It might seem easy to fill out the form, but people often run into unexpected problems. There are a lot of practices that go on inside agencies that only someone who deals with them on a daily basis can be familiar with.”


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