When someone called out his name, Manuel Rios' wife and two daughters had to nudge him out of his seat. "What are you waiting for?" asked one daughter, stifling a laugh. Rios, a short, rumpled man with a look of good-natured bewilderment, rushed to the front desk, returning to the waiting area a moment later with a laminated identity card.
The other members of the family passed it around, as if it were a charm. They held it up to the light and examined the picture of Rios, an El Monte bakery worker.
Rios beamed. For the first time in the 10 years he has lived in the United States, he was "documented," he said. With the work authorization card just handed to him by an official at the El Monte Immigration and Naturalization Service Legalization Center, he could go to his job without fear that authorities might burst in and seize him as an undocumented alien.
"For years, I have saved my tax forms and receipts," he said. "But I never dreamed that there would be an amnesty like this."
When he gets his temporary residency card in a few months, Rios can even consider a long-delayed visit to his elderly father in a village in the state of Guanajuato, in central Mexico. " Si, voy a dar una vuelta por alla ," he said, leaning back in the seat, like someone behind the wheel of a brand-new luxury car. "I'll take a little trip down there."
There is no guarantee, of course. Rios' application still has to be reviewed by the INS Regional Processing Facility in Laguna Niguel, immigration officials pointed out. But Rios, armed with rent receipts, medical records and income tax forms, is confident that he will be among the majority who qualify.
After a sputtering start, the immigration amnesty program in the San Gabriel Valley is beginning to reach large numbers of people. The waiting rooms in the two legalization centers in the area are usually jammed with people these days--adults like Rios and his wife, Maria, nervously fingering bits of paper while their children blithely climb across the seats. Interviewers at both the El Monte and Pomona INS centers have been processing more than 250 applicants a day in recent weeks.
During the early days of the program, which began three months ago, immigration officials could count the numbers of applicants arriving each day on the fingers of one hand.
Now significant numbers are completing the process, officials say. Three weeks ago, both San Gabriel Valley centers handed out their first temporary residency cards under the amnesty program. By last week, as many as 30 people a day were coming in to each center to pick up the cards, which allow the holder to work and to travel into and out of the country. Eighteen months after an applicant receives his temporary card, he can apply for the much-desired green card or permanent residency authorization.
As of last week, the two centers had interviewed and issued work authorizations to more than 15,000 people. The Pomona office, among the three busiest offices in the INS Southwest Region, handled 9,160 of those. The region includes 36 legalization offices in California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam.
"I think there has to be a lot less anxiety than there was," said Robert Gilbert, chief legalization officer for the Pomona office, which boasts that it is the only center in the region advertising its presence with a 30-foot sign, on the front of its East Holt Avenue building. "Just about everybody walks out of here with an employment authorization card."
As with other centers in the region, the number of recommendations for denial of amnesty in the Pomona office has been running at less than 1%, Gilbert said. Even those people recommended for denial, though, are issued the work authorization permit, which is valid for six months. If their applications for temporary residency are denied, they face possible deportation.
The El Monte office, which was closed for 10 days in July because of a fire on another floor in the privately owned office building on Flair Drive, has interviewed 6,192.
"People are saying it's not as bad as they thought it would be," said Lupe Ochoa, chief legalization officer for the El Monte center. "Not only are they doing it themselves, but they're encouraging their compadres to come, too. They know that we're not arresting anyone."
Volunteer organizations, which pre-screen applicants and assist in filling out the four-page application, are working the kinks out of their operations, too. For example, Catholic Charities, which began operations in May with a single office in the San Gabriel Valley area, now has four offices, three in East Los Angeles and one in Pomona. Catholic Charities includes East Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley Diocese, which extends eastward to Pomona.
The charitable organization, which has been processing about 1,250 applicants a week, plans to open two more offices and to extend the hours of operation to evenings and weekends by the end of August. The new offices will be in the Baldwin Park-West Covina area and in the San Gabriel-Alhambra area.
The organization has had technical problems with its computers and difficulties in finding appropriate space in the San Gabriel Valley, said Regional Director Marcos Cazares.
"There's always the ideal and the reality," said Cazares, talking about the difficulties of getting the Catholic Charities' effort off the ground. "For us, the worst-case scenario happened"--crowds of applicants, insufficient space and a backlog of paper work.
Besides the technical difficulties, the agency found itself in the untenable position of mediating between unprepared applicants and exceedingly restrictive regulations, Cazares said.
Applicants must prove that they have lived in the United States illegally since Jan. 1, 1982. "We literally had people coming in with shoe boxes and shopping bags full of documents," he said. "It took a lot of time going through them."
But since opening day on May 2, the INS has loosened the requirements. "When I was trained by INS, we were instructed to document a person's residency, month by month, for the five-year period," said Cazares. "That can turn into a real nightmare for some people."
Now, instead of having to submit documentation for each month, the applicant can produce affidavits from employers or landlords.
But there are still many individual problems, said Efren A. Barron, head of an AFL-CIO immigrant assistance program office in El Monte. "If you know anything about the people around here, you know that they go wherever there's work available," said Barron, whose operation, in the headquarters of Local 1082 of the Laborers International Union, has helped process about 1,000 applicants so far.
"One guy might rent a house with 10 guys sharing the rent. The others say, 'Yeah, I paid rent,' but lots of times there's no rent receipt at all."
He said a number of his Mexican applicants had hit a snag because, though they resided in the United States the requisite number of years, they had gone back to their native country for emergency visits.
"They've got a job and a little money, so instead of paying a coyote $300 to take them across the border, they get a tourist visa and come back by plane," Barron said. "But ask them about it, and they'll say, 'I'm no tourist. I'm going back to work.' "
Such applicants can be disqualified because the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 requires that they be "illegal" for five years. Someone with a six-month tourist visa is technically "legal." The INS has yet to rule on the issue.
The crowds piling into the processing centers are impelled both by word of mouth about the painlessness of the process and by a federal deadline. All undocumented aliens must submit temporary work authorizations to their employers by Sept. 1, after which the employers can be fined.
"A lot of employers are asking for the cards already," said Barron. "Some of our people are holding back, saying, 'Is this really going to happen?' But a lot of people are coming in, saying, 'I gotta get me a card.' "
At the same time, INS assurances of confidentiality are beginning to acquire credibility, volunteer organizations say. "One man told me early on that each center would have two doors," Barron said. "The people who qualified would go through one door, and the people who didn't would go through the other, where a green INS bus would be waiting to deport them. It was a joke, but it showed the apprehension on the part of a lot of people."
Immigration officials and volunteer groups say that the vast majority--about 75%--of the people they are interviewing in the San Gabriel Valley are Mexicans, with one of the Central American nations, usually El Salvador or Nicaragua, coming in a distant second.
"It's understandable," said Cazares. "Especially here in Southern California, the vast majority are obviously going to be Latino. They're here as part of a historic migration to the Southwest, dating back to the mission days."
The applicants at the El Monte INS office have shown particular national diversity, with representatives from 33 nations applying there.
For the most part, the applicants are just like their documented, naturalized or American-born neighbors, officials say. "Mostly, they're very nice people," said Gilbert. "They've worked and supported themselves. They're good members of the community and good neighbors. Now we have an opportunity to hand them something that's a once-in-a-lifetime thing--a shortcut around the system."
But most of have led fretful, secretive existences during their years in the United States. "Your life is always tentative," said one middle-aged Mexican woman from El Monte, interviewed in a Catholic Charities office in Pomona. She asked that her name be withheld.
"You always think they're going to grab you. You go from home to work and from work to home. Maybe you go to visit relatives--that's all. There are always rumors that la migra is going to raid the factory or the hospital. But you can't stay away from work. That's what you're here for--to work."
Even as elementary a task as crossing a street can have frightening aspects, said Shanghai-born Jack Tang, who lives illegally in Monterey Park. "Once I was in Chinatown, crossing the street, and the light changed to red," said the Mandarin-speaking pastry chef, talking through a translator. "A policeman grabbed me and asked to see my driver's license. Fortunately, I had a student I.D. and he let me go. Life is very nervous for me." Tang will apply for legalization next week.
For INS staff, which for generations has been perceived as a dreaded adversary by people like Manuel Rios, the amnesty program has been a morale builder, said Gilbert, who talks warmly of the emotion that applicants show when they suddenly find themselves on a legal footing in this country.
"The program has been a challenge and a pleasure," said Gilbert, a 30-year veteran of the INS. "I feel that, when this is over, I'll look back at it with pride as one of the better experiences of my career."