Amnesty’s Long-Term Impact Still Not Clear : 1 Million Aliens Apply in First Six Months, but Experts Take Wait-and-See Stance on Its Success

Times Staff Writers

In the first six months of the sweeping federal program aimed at controlling illegal immigration into the United States, the measure has begun to change the lives of the nation’s undocumented alien population and force employers to adjust to a whole new layer of government regulation.

But despite the swift creation of a new bureaucracy to administer and enforce dozens of new regulations, the law’s long-term impact remains in doubt.

Since May 5, the day the new immigration program started, nearly 1 million illegal aliens have emerged from life in the underground to apply for legalization under a yearlong amnesty. That figure, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say, is halfway to their goal of 2 million applications by next May.

But observers of the INS performance point to a recent marked drop-off in applications as evidence that the agency may not reach its own projected numbers by the program’s end.


“It’s been more successful than anyone would have imagined at this point, but still a lot remains to be seen,” said Doris Meissner, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for Worl1679839333of the INS, expressing a consensus among experts.

Although the agency has won praise for setting up scores of efficient legalization offices, the amnesty program has progressed in lurches. There have been delays at processing centers. Poor turnout has plagued some legalization centers and many service agencies that contracted with INS to help immigrants prepare cases. A growing number of such offices are closing or reducing their staffs.

Immigrant advocates blame the diminishing numbers on the agency’s restrictive interpretations of the law and its slowness to resolve questions about who qualifies for amnesty. Agency officials blame problems on poor planning and training by community groups.

In the first two months of employer sanctions, the other major phase of the law that was implemented in September, more than 7 million businesses have been notified of strict new requirements to demand proof of residence from their employees and to refuse work to illegal aliens. Hoping for mass voluntary compliance, the INS has already warned more than 100 firms and fined several others as examples of its intent to vigorously enforce the law.


Compliance may not be widespread, early evidence shows. And both supporters and critics of the INS warn that its main aim--to reduce the flow of illegal aliens into the country--may be jeopardized by the law’s failure to hold employers fully accountable for the validity of their workers’ documents. The result, many experts say, could be a new flood of fraudulent work papers beyond the control of INS agents.

Prosecutions for using phony documents in the workplace have already begun with a handful of indictments. Government officials have also warned that they are seeing an increase in fraudulent papers among amnesty applicants and, especially, farm workers who are applying for legalization under separate regulations.

Agency officials say their efforts at reducing illegal immigration are already working, borne out by a 34% drop in arrests of undocumented aliens at the U.S.-Mexico border between November, 1986--when the immigration law was enacted--and this month. Still, more than 1 million people were caught crossing the border in the last fiscal year.

“We’ve done one fine job,” INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson said. “So far, we’re right on target.”

Other Reasons

Some experts insist that border traffic slowed because of early fears among immigrants of the law’s potential effects on the workplace instead of the realities of the last six months. Those reductions could evaporate if officials are not able to fully deliver on their projections of fewer jobs for illegal workers and vastly toughened enforcement.

Immigration experts say it is still too early to give a verdict on the effectiveness of the fledgling law. But some independent studies have begun to surface, cautiously noting the program’s success stories while exposing potential long-term flaws.

“The INS has made a good-faith effort. Their approach seems reasonable,” said James Blume, group director of immigration for the federal General Accounting Office, which just released the first of three annual assessments of the law.


Adherence Not Widespread

But last month, a high-ranking U.S. Labor Department official reported that an early survey of business reaction to the record-keeping requirements of employer sanctions showed that adherence is not widespread. Michael Baroody, assistant secretary for policy, said spot checks by investigators indicated that only a third of the nation’s businesses were in full compliance. Another third were complying, but not fully, and a final third were either ignoring or actively flouting the law.

John K. Hill, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas who earlier this year used census data to study the long-term impact of employer sanctions, predicts that the law will reduce no more than 15% to 25% of the nation’s illegal alien work force. Hill believes that compliance will fade as employers and immigrants realize that enforcement is hampered by limited resources.

“Some aliens will go home,” he said. “The rest will come to be absorbed by the industries where enforcement is lightest.”

Legalization Survey

A survey of INS legalization and border arrest statistics by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies suggests that the amnesty program “may not reach the highest of the INS predictions, but they are clearly running well above the low levels predicted by INS critics.”

After only a month of amnesty, INS legalization offices reported national application figures in excess of 30,000 per week. But since late September, those numbers have fallen off. In the first week of November, weekly legalization applications totaled about 20,000, the lowest figure since the fourth week of the amnesty program. Almost 58% of the applicants are from California.

At the current rate, only about 1.6 million applications could be expected by the end of the program, said Rick Swartz, president of the National Forum for Immigration and Naturalization Policy, a coalition of immigrant rights groups and labor and community organizations.


Last-Minute Rush

Many experts expect a last-minute rush for amnesty as immigrants who have held back crowd INS offices. “But will that last-minute rush be 400,000?” Swartz asked.

Even if the INS reaches its 2-million target, there is little agreement whether the agency will be able to offer amnesty to the maximum number of the nation’s eligible immigrants. Efforts are already under way in Congress to extend the program, perhaps by six months.

David North, a researcher with the Center for Immigration Studies, said that whatever the final numbers, the program is justified by the successful legalization of aliens who otherwise would continue their shadow existence. “Hundreds of thousands of people coming forth for legalization has been very meaningful,” he said.

‘Done Everything Possible’

Few members of the Senate subcommittee overseeing the law’s implementation appear to be troubled over the final turnout. “If we’ve done everything possible and the numbers are below 2 million, that’s fine,” said Michael Myers, the subcommittee’s chief counsel.

An underlying problem in gauging success is that no one knows how many illegal immigrants there are in the country. The INS has a reputation among experts of historically using high figures, and some think the agency’s initial announcement to build a program with a capacity for handling 3.9 million applications was an overestimate.

But some experts still believe that there are perhaps twice as many eligible immigrants as the 2 million projected by the government.

“Legalization is a tremendous benefit, but it’s not going to work as well as Congress had thought,” said Leonel J. Castillo, who served as INS commissioner during the Jimmy Carter Administration. “My guess is that not even half of those who are eligible” will go through the process.

Thousands Excluded

Critics of the INS handling of the program say that thousands of eligible aliens have been excluded by the agency’s restrictive regulations, its vague and demanding documentation requirements and major policy changes made months into the program. A recent survey of community service groups by the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointe1679839078potential applicants continued to “fear the government or possible deportation of their ineligible family members.”

Still, the overwhelming majority of amnesty applications have been approved by INS, which reports a mere 3% denial rate. Observers note that the INS has processed less than 15% of the nearly 1 million applications filed so far and question whether the high approval rate will hold as more difficult cases are processed.

“Now they’re getting the cream of the crop,” said Maurice Roberts, editor of a Washington-based immigration journal called Interpreter Releases.

While INS examiners at the agency’s Western Region processing center in Orange County work 12-hour days, in other parts of the country the agency has cut back its staff for lack of work. Legalization offices have reduced work forces in northeastern cities such as New York, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, where amnesty applications are far fewer than anticipated.

Other Agencies Cut Back

Community service agencies that have suffered similar reductions include the Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which recently closed its legalization processing center, and Catholic Charities in Los Angeles, which closed 12 of its 18 centers.

“We didn’t project so few people coming in,” said Katie Meskell, a Catholic Charities spokeswoman.

There are no such number worries within the INS about its enforcement of employer sanctions. INS field agents, whose numbers are being beefed up to enforce sanctions, say morale has soared from the bleak early 1980s when the number of immigrants crossing the porous 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border reached all-time highs.

“My people are supportive,” said Gene Smithburg, assistant chief of Border Patrol agents in the San Diego district. “For the first time, we’re able to go out and not just get the aliens but take actions against the employers as well.”

Two months into its enforcement of sanctions, the INS has issued 318 warning citations to businesses--53% issued to service industries, mostly restaurants and hotels, and another 30% to light manufacturing firms, including the garment industry. Several firms have been fined, including $16,500 assessed against a Virginia hotel chain and $6,500 to a water bed frame manufacturer in San Diego county. Both firms are appealing the fines.

Labor Shortages

In some regions, labor shortages have been blamed on the law. Tom Rouland, an executive with the Restaurant Assn. of Metropolitan Washington, said he has seen dozens of newspaper want ads for stock clerks, warehousemen, gardeners and dishwashers. “You never saw those jobs recruit that way before,” he said.

Early shortages of agricultural workers reported by farmers in northwestern states were discounted by government officials and labor unions.

To INS officials and their supporters, such discomfort leads to compliance. “We are impressed by the early returns on sanctions,” said Richard Estrada, research director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a strong backer of the law.

But sanctions proponents echo critics of the law when they look to the future. Estrada said the law’s Achilles’ heel is the failure to truly force employers to be responsible for workers’ employment credentials. Instead, business owners need only show a “good faith” effort to verify documents.

“The law is on the brink of disaster,” Estrada said. “For a couple of hundred dollars, illegals will be able to buy a packet of phony documents and present it to employers, who will accept them with a wink and a nod.”

Checking for Fraud

Coupled with that threat is the fear that investigators will be spread thin checking for fraud. Next year, according to the General Accounting Office report, INS agents will audit documents from one-third of 1% of the nation’s employers.

Estrada believes that enforcement can only be strengthened by a national identity card--already spurned by Congress--or a nationwide computer network in which employers could verify documents, which is under consideration by the INS.

But many other experts say that no matter how tough the INS enforcement stance, the fragile economies and regional conflicts of Central America and Asia will continue to drive hundreds of thousands of immigrants over the border.

“The immigrant flow is so well-developed at this point that to completely stop it would require Draconian policies and entail costs that no American would be willing to pay,” said Douglas Massey, a University of Chicago sociologist who co-authored a new study of the powerful forces behind immigration.

The irony of the amnesty program, Massey believes, is that it will provide citizenship for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who will form a new social network for millions of illegals still hoping to cross the borders.

A further irony that may result from a surge in newly legalized residents is a longer wait for close relatives trying to immigrate under the regular naturalization process. Former INS Commissioner Castillo expects the current average 11-year wait for Mexicans to rise to 17 years.

“All it’s doing is buying time,” Castillo said. “We will probably have to consider another legalization program in five years.”


Applications received for legalization and farmworker programs, May 5-Oct. 31, 1987.

Mexico 68.9% El Salvador 6.1% Haiti 4.9% Guatemala 2.0% Philippines 1.4% Nicaragua 1.1% Colombia 1.1% Poland 1.0% Jamaica 0.9% Iran 0.7%

Total applications received: 935,547

Applications received by state, May 5,-Oct. 31, 1987.

California 436,695 57.6% Texas 121,316 16.0% Illinois 49,362 6.5% New York 39,678 5.2% Florida 24,266 3.2% Other 87,070 11.5%

Source: Immigration and Naturalization Service