New York Wearing a cream-colored spaghetti-strap gown, Ana Jimenez waited patiently in the city clerk's office for her wedding to Dionicio Presbitero.
There was more than one reason to get married the couple's two children, for one thing but Jimenez conceded the ceremony was prompted partly by a new federal law that gives certain immigrants until April 30 to file papers seeking to legalize their status.
"It's a little of everything," said Jimenez, 23, a Mexican citizen whose 70-year-old bridegroom is a U.S. citizen.
Under the new law, called the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act, or LIFE Act, Jimenez may now apply to become a permanent U.S. resident a green card holder without leaving the country.
Marriage to an American citizen is among the fastest ways to ensure approval under the act, and the looming deadline is believed to be a main reason behind a spike in marriage licenses issued here and elsewhere.
"They're going berserk," said Roberto Reboso, manager of the marriage license bureau for Florida's Miami-Dade County, where applications are running at more than triple last year's rate.
Since its passage Dec. 21, the law has caused considerable confusion across the country, with some news reports mistakenly portraying it as a general amnesty for illegal immigrants. Immigrant advocates say the chaos has opened the door to shady operators promising green cards for all.
While the law is far from an amnesty, its benefits are substantial for would-be green card holders who have a relative or employer to sponsor them.
The law reinstates a provision in effect from 1994 to 1998 that allows immigrants to apply for legal status without having to go to the U.S. consulate in their home country. That is significant because most illegal immigrants are barred from re-entering the United States once they leave.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that there are 640,000 immigrants nationwide who are eligible to file papers under the law, spokeswoman Elaine Komis said.
But the rules governing who may sponsor whom for legal status are complex. In certain cases, relatives may sponsor applicants; in some cases employers may do so but only after proving a job is legitimate and there is a shortage of American workers to fill it.
Marriage to a U.S. citizen is often the best, and simplest, route.
The lines were long at the Municipal Building in Manhattan where Jimenez and Presbitero took their vows last week. City Clerk Carlos Cuevas said marriages are up 125 percent compared with last year at this time.
While no one can say for certain how many of these marriages are prompted by the change in immigration law, local officials say it is clear many are. Other cities with large immigrant populations are seeing a similar boom.
Miami-Dade has seen 7,057 applications and 3,155 ceremonies through March 20. For all of March 2000, there were just 2,283 applications and 911 ceremonies in county offices.
Komis said committed couples who could benefit from the law should be encouraged to marry in time to take advantage of the April 30 deadline. But she warned that no one should embark on a fake marriage to obtain a green card.
The penalty for a fraudulent marriage is up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $250,000 or both.