Thompson Helped Immigrants in Legal Peril

By Sabar, Ariel | The Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Thompson Helped Immigrants in Legal Peril


Sabar, Ariel, The Christian Science Monitor


Fred Thompson has made the tough enforcement of immigration laws a cornerstone of his presidential campaign platform, running television ads in Iowa titled "No Amnesty" and skewering rivals for their immigration records.

But at least twice as a US senator, Mr. Thompson personally intervened on behalf of immigrants at risk of deportation, according to papers in his Senate archives here and interviews with the immigrants.

In 1999, he pleaded with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to reinstate a green-card application from a Korean family who became illegal when their visas expired. In 2000, Thompson passed a private law to grant green cards - or permanent residence - to a disabled Bolivian widow and three of her children. Under public law, the family would have had to leave the United States.

The episodes reveal a greater open-mindedness toward immigrants in legal limbo than has been evident from Thompson on the campaign trail.

"I'm very appreciating about what he do," the Bolivian widow, Jacqueline Salinas, of Memphis, Tenn., said in a phone interview last week. "He's a blessing for my family."

She says she became a US citizen this year.

In letters to federal officials and in remarks in the Senate at the time, Thompson said the families deserved special treatment for "humanitarian reasons" and their "extraordinary circumstances." In memos to Thompson, Senate aides also noted the prospect of positive media coverage.

The headline of an August 1999 news release from his Senate office read, "Thompson Introduces Legislation to Assist St. Jude Cancer Patient."

Ms. Salinas and her husband came to the United States in 1996 on tourist visas so their 7-year-old daughter could receive medical care for a rare cancer. About a year later, her husband and a 3- year-old daughter were killed in a car accident that Salinas says left her paralyzed while seven-months pregnant.

The family stayed in the United States by renewing six-month visas. "Because they do not meet the requirements for permanent residence under current immigration law ... the Salinas family will be forced to leave the United States following the expiration of their tourist visas," Thompson said in a September 1999 letter asking Sen. Spencer Abraham, then chairman of the immigration subcommittee, to consider his private bill. "It is my hope that we can act soon to prevent another tragic setback for the Salinas family."

The Korean family, Seung and Eun Kyung Lee, came to the United States with their son in 1988 on business and tourist visas, Mr. Lee said in an interview. When the visas expired around 1994, they became "out of status," or illegal, according to Mr. Lee and a September 1999 memo to Thompson from an aide.

In 1994, the family paid a $1,000 penalty that allowed Ms. Lee's father, a US citizen, to sponsor a petition to "adjust" them to legal status. But in May 1999, with the petition still pending, the father died, which would normally trigger an automatic revocation.

A few months later, Thompson wrote to a senior INS official, asking that the petition be reinstated under a humanitarian exception. "To deport this family and send them back to South Korea now because of INS processing delays ... would pose an undue hardship on the Lees and their children," he wrote, describing the family as "model citizens in the Nashville community."

The next month, the INS made the exception. A spokeswoman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency couldn't comment on specific cases because of privacy laws.

The Lees regained legal status in 2000 when their green-card application was approved, Mr. Lee said. "Mr. Thompson stood for my family," he said in a phone interview last week. "We were very, very happy."

Lee and his wife became citizens this year, he said. He owns a home-building firm, and the family lives in a four-bedroom house in the Nashville suburbs. …

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