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U.S. immigration net snares unwary on Canadian border

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On Memorial Day weekend in May, Lei Yu and her American husband Rinaldo Del Gallo walked over the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls to view the falls from the more spectacular Canadian side. But only one of them was allowed to walk back.

While Del Gallo watched horrified, his wife was halted by U.S. immigration officials, shackled, placed in detention and hauled back to Canada.Lei, 29, has been languishing since in a refugee shelter in Fort Erie, Ontario, and may be forced to return to her native country, China, from which she and her parents fled eight years ago seeking political asylum.

Immigration lawyers say Lei is one of a growing number of applicants caught in an aggressive enforcement campaign since Congress overhauled immigration laws in 1996.

"The INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) feels it's been given a mandate to tighten things up at the border," says Gretchen Aylward, a Buffalo, N.Y., immigration lawyer. "Since the 1996 law, enforcement and diligence at points of entry has increased tremendously."

Canadians who have watched border delays grow ever longer can attest to that fact. What has been touted as the world's longest undefended border is no longer quite so porous.

In 1996, Congress handed the INS sweeping powers to bar future entry to anyone who was suspected of trying to enter illegally. Under a provision known as "expedited removal," a border guard can summarily bar anyone from the U.S. for five years, subject to no judicial review.

Of greater concern to most Canadians heading south is a pending measure to require all foreigners to be identified each time they enter or leave the United States.

That rule, which will take effect in September unless Congress delays the measure, would create huge backlogs at every border crossing.

Canada wants U.S. legislators to exempt the northern border from this restriction.

But the issue is politically sensitive because any special treatment for Canada would offend Mexico, at which the 1996 immigration law was primarily aimed. An alternative approach to implement the rule only at airports, and not at land entry points, is before Congress.

Certainly the law was not aimed at people like Lei, married to an American citizen since last April. But when she showed up at the U.S. border that weekend, "she was just another face in the crowd," said John Ingham, Buffalo district director for the INS.

Lei, a graduate student, had applied for permanent residence after marrying Del Gallo. What the U.S. government didn't tell her was that, under that application, she was forbidden from leaving the United States without a special travel document. By strolling across the bridge, she unwittingly renounced her right to remain in the United States.

Immigration lawyers say such cases are increasingly common as the waiting period for applications has grown from two or three months before the 1996 law to 15 months or more now.