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Illegal Aliens Slow to Embrace Amnesty Drive : Turnout at New INS Offices Lighter Than Anticipated

Times Staff Writer

The Immigration and Naturalization Service began accepting applications Tuesday for the long-awaited federal amnesty program, but the anticipated crunch of applicants failed to materialize at the two new INS legalization offices in San Diego County.

Applicants and information seekers trickled in to the offices in Serra Mesa and Escondido, and they expressed surprise that the anticipated lengthy lines were missing.

“I expected to see lines of people coming out the door,” said Gerardo Mercado, a 29-year-old construction worker from Ensenada who said he has lived in Los Angeles and San Diego since 1977.

Instead, Mercado and others found more reporters and INS employees than fellow undocumented immigrants.

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First-Day Figures

By day’s end, the Serra Mesa office had fielded 222 “contacts,” mostly from people seeking forms and information, said Robert L. Coffman, chief legalization officer in San Diego. Only four legalization interviews were conducted, all with members of a Lakeside family whose case the INS has used as a model for other applicants.

“I feel very happy,” said Maria Cardenas de Hermosillo, a native of the Mexican state of Jalisco who, along with her three Mexican-born children, received work authorization documents from the INS.

INS employees at the Serra Mesa office have scheduled 15 to 20 interviews for today, Coffman said.

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Officials of the INS and various independent agencies working with amnesty applicants said they were not discouraged by Tuesday’s light turnout.

“It’ll pick up,” said Art Shanks, deputy district director for immigration reform in San Diego. “We know they are out there. It’s just a matter of time.”

It is estimated that there are as many as 100,000 illegal aliens in San Diego, of whom half may qualify for amnesty.

Under the new law, illegal aliens who have lived continuously in the United States since January, 1982, may qualify for legal resident status. In addition, farm workers who completed at least 90 days of agricultural work during the one-year period that ended May 1, 1986, may also qualify for amnesty.

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Application Deadline a Year Away

Most illegal aliens will have one year, beginning Tuesday, to submit their applications for amnesty.

In explaining the relatively small initial turnout, immigration authorities and others cited several factors:

- An inherent distrust of the INS among illegal aliens. Authorities have voiced the hope that that distrust may diminish as time passes and it becomes evident that amnesty is not a “sting” operation designed to entrap and deport illegal aliens.

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- The work of independent agencies, lawyers and others who are assisting illegal aliens in the preparation of amnesty applications. Without this assistance, authorities noted, many more undocumented immigrants would be besieging the INS directly.

- The unavailability of many needed application forms until last week, and the delay in issuing final regulations for the program until last Friday. Because of the delays, many would-be applicants have been unable to complete their applications and gather the needed documentation.

“We’re expecting people to kind of sit back and see what breaks loose,” said Father Douglas Regin, executive director of Catholic Community Services, which has already pre-registered 12,000 potential amnesty applicants in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Concern Voiced

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However, while most amnesty-seekers have a year to apply, Father Regin expressed concern for those who only have 30 days, beginning Tuesday, to submit their applications. The law allows only 30 days for illegal aliens who have received official deportation notices between Nov. 6, the date the law became effective, and Tuesday.

“It’s going to be difficult for them to complete the applications in so short a time,” noted Father Regin. “If you look at what people have to go through to apply, it’s going to take some people a few months to get everything together.”

Applicants are required to fill out a four-page form that asks detailed questions about their time in the United States. They must also provide documentation, such as rent receipts and canceled checks, to demonstrate U.S. residence.

They also must submit two photographs, a set of fingerprints, and a medical form from a doctor. There is also a fee of $185 per adult, or $50 per minor child, up to a maximum of $420 for a family.

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INS officials defended the placement of the office in Serra Mesa, which is a considerable distance from the traditional Latino enclaves in southern San Diego and the South Bay. Latinos of Mexican ancestry are expected to dominate those applying for amnesty in San Diego County, although officials said that people of other nations came to the office, including Canadians, Iranians, Guyanese and Indians.

“This was the best location available,” said Shanks, noting its central location, proximity to public transportation and available parking.

Shanks and others expressed doubts that the location had dissuaded potential applicants.

As the legalization office was accepting applicants, about 60 protesters demonstrated against the new immigration law at San Ysidro Park. The protesters maintained that a key section of the law--legal sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens--will prompt employers to discriminate against workers and job applicants who are Latino.

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Protest March at Border

Soon after the rally at the park, the protesters, escorted by San Diego police, marched about a mile to the U.S.-Mexico border, carrying banners and chanting slogans such as “We’re All Illegals” and “Down With Oppression.”

When the Serra Mesa office opened at 8 a.m., there were only two applicants in line. At the front was Graciela Torrejon Baraja, a 36-year-old mother of three who said she has lived in the United States since 1976 and now resides in Rancho Bernardo.

“With legalization, I can walk with my head high and not have to be afraid of being arrested and deported,” said Torrejon, who was born near Guadalajara.

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A nursing assistant, Torrejon cares for the invalid wife of John Hagar, a property manager who accompanied Torrejon to the amnesty office.

“This is the kind of person who deserves to be a citizen,” said Hagar.

Like Torrejon, Mercado, the Ensenada native, said that he had always maintained personal documents demonstrating his continuous residence in the United States.

“I kept everything,” he said, relating a list of rent receipts, bank statements, tax forms and other documents. “I knew something like this would happen, and I wanted to be sure that I had my documents as proof.”

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Many applicants expressed dissatisfaction with the length of the continuous-residency requirements. “I think they are making it too hard,” said Manuel Rodriguez, a construction worker in Temecula who went to the legalization office in Escondido.

A Mexico City native, Rodriguez has only been in the country for three years, and therefore fails to qualify under the 1982 cutoff date.

“I don’t understand why they are making this so difficult,” said Rodriguez. “Here they need the help of the worker. I’m here to work.”

Times staff writers Marcos Breton and Hector Gutierrez contributed to this story.

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