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From a puzzle of wood pieces and screws on the floor all around him, Henry stoically assembles a white dining-room chair. “We need the chairs to eat dinner,” explains his wife, Cristina, from the couch. The other furniture around them—a love seat, couch, and coffee table—surrounds a mass of boxes and packed items in the center of the room.

But Henry and Cristina, both immigrants from Venezuela, don’t know whether to assemble their dining-room chairs or take them apart, whether to pack up or settle in. They live in a purgatory created by a new set of regulations designed to rid the country of immigrants who are here without portfolio.

The regulations took effect on April 1 and gave immigrants like Henry who have overstayed a tourist visa 180 days to leave the country. (Cristina, who has a valid work permit, is free to stay.) And unlike other immigration crackdowns, this one came with teeth: People who ignore the deadline and are caught are to be deported, banned from visiting the U.S., and prohibited for three years from applying for resident status. Those who comply with the new order face no penalty for visa violations and will be allowed to file their paperwork immediately upon their departure.

For Henry, neither option is palatable: leave his wife now and wait years to get back in, or break the rules and maybe never reside in the U.S. legally.

Henry came to Washington in November 1994 hoping to take some advanced aviation courses and land a snazzy job as a pilot back in Venezuela. The dream didn’t quite materialize. The young pilot watched his $2,000 kitty quickly disappear and his tourist visa expire.

“I investigated where they had classes, how to pay for the courses, how to find transportation. But soon I had to make some money,” he says in Spanish.

He soon found himself piloting a cash register. “I’d get into McDonald’s at 5 in the morning until about 1:30 to 2 [p.m.], then go into 7-Eleven at 3 to get out at 11,” Henry says, grimacing. “On the weekends, I worked at 7-Eleven from 11 at night until 7 in the morning.” Then he landed a job as a plumber’s assistant, which he still holds. Like most aliens here illegally, he pays taxes to a Social Security number in his name, which he obtained when his visa was valid.

“He had to start working as a plumber, but that’s not his profession. As a pilot he feels frustrated, because every day that future seems farther away,” says Cristina, also in her native tongue.

She had better luck: Although she arrived a year after Henry, she found work as a special-education teacher, and her employer sponsored her pending application to become a permanent resident.

In some respects, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has treated Cristina and Henry kindly. She is almost certain to receive her green card; he violated his visa term and will not be penalized. Still, the couple has worked up a healthy resentment toward the system. “[We] come to get a piece of paper that says ‘United States’ on it. But what happens? You come with those plans and get here legally, and suddenly the doors start to close on you,” says Cristina. “You came…to a strange country…to fight to make things better for your family. Once you decide to come here and you’re ready to sacrifice, you start your life here.”

The hard feelings stem in large part from the couple’s travels through the thicket of INS regulations, which constantly seem to be in flux. Tweaking immigration laws—like tax codes—has long been one of Congress’ favorite hobbies. In a seesaw battle that will never end, Republican hard-liners push for tighter immigration restrictions, and Democrats with large immigrant constituencies push back with liberal proposals of their own. People like Henry and Cristina end up in a gray area, unsure of where they stand from day to day.

In early August, the couple’s lawyer told Henry he had to get out of the country by Sept. 27, the last day of the 180-day window. If he failed to leave, Henry would be barred from even filing for residency for three years. Then he might have to wait five to 10 years for his residency application to make its way through the system.

As the clock ticked down, the lawyer advised the couple to take the only option available: an immigration loophole known as 245(i). A previous federal immigration law established 245(i) to allow aliens with expired visas to extend their stay by paying $1,000, provided that their residency visas were close to being granted. Henry plunked down the $1,000 on his lawyer’s advice, even though his residency visa, for which he filed earlier this year, won’t be granted for years. But all Henry wanted to do was stay in the country; if his wife’s application for permanent residency came through during the reprieve, his own green-card application would move ahead in the INS queue.

The $1,000 investment was doubly risky because 245(i) was set to expire at the end of September. If Congress failed to renew the provision, Henry would lose the money and still have to leave on Sept. 27.

Cristina says that the tension of living on borrowed time has expressed itself in many small ways: Henry’s hair has started falling out, her menstrual cycle has skidded off track, neither of them sleeps well. “We stopped buying things. We started packing. We could barely concentrate at our jobs,” she says. “Everything that you worked so long to put together had to be undone in three or four days,” Cristina says. She cried for entire days as Henry left his job, packed his stuff, and took apart the dining-room chairs.

Then came an unexpected phone call from the lawyer on Sept. 26—the day before Henry’s planned flight to Caracas.

“We were almost out the door to the travel agency to buy his ticket when we got the call,” says Cristina, who jumped at the news. After heavy wrangling by immigration lobbyists, Congress had agreed to extend 245(i) until Oct. 23, thus establishing a new date for Henry’s departure for Venezuela.

But the $1,000 gamble hasn’t paid off yet. The INS may still inform Henry that the 245(i) loophole doesn’t apply to him. Until INS does that, however, Henry clings to the slim hope that his wife’s application will be approved before Oct. 23. And since Congress is contemplating a permanent extension of 245(i), Henry is better off if INS doesn’t get to that paperwork too quickly.

If he goes, the couple will have to sell their belongings and face bankruptcy thanks to the premium interest rates they pay for stuff bought on credit, which is nearly everything. Even if Henry lands a job in Caracas, his salary won’t cover the bill. And they’ll be split apart, because Cristina will stay in the U.S., waiting for her green card.

Henry has trouble understanding how he ended up on the wrong side of the law. “The people who came here to ruin this country and sell drugs—they’re the ones who get to stay,” he says. True enough: Those who plan on staying here illegally face no deadline at all. But Henry must go, with no guarantee of return. He has already booked a flight for Oct. 23.

“For us it’s like a war,” he says. “The husband goes off to war, and the wife doesn’t know if he’s coming back.”CP