For a few charmed months, the old red mail box that federal immigration officials installed in Room 1001 in their downtown Los Angeles office worked without a hitch.
The sudden appearance of the metal drop box in the bustling Immigration and Naturalization Service reception room last May seemed the perfect solution to complaints by lawyers about having to confront long lines and harried examiners every day when they showed up to hand in citizenship applications and other filings.
With the new box, attorneys were able to bypass the examiners and receive prompt answers and appointments for their clients. "I figured it was too good to be true," recalled Ron Tasoff, an immigration lawyer.
It was. By last October, many of Tasoff's drop box cases--and those of other immigration attorneys--had disappeared into bureaucratic limbo, devoured by what Tasoff calls "the black hole of Room 1001." Filings that once took a week to answer are now taking as long as three months to surface--if they are answered at all--and many wary lawyers have now given up on using Room 1001's mail box.
While delays and logistical problems have become familiar concerns within the INS' highly publicized national amnesty program over the last eight months, attorneys and others who work with immigrants said that similar backlogs and snafus among regular immigration cases have become pervasive since last May in the Los Angeles district and elsewhere in the INS' Western region.
For instance, before the amnesty program began, local INS efforts to streamline citizenship applications had cut the waiting period for processing to as little as a year. But immigration lawyers now say that clients are being told that they may have to wait up to 2 1/2 years for interviews.
Immigration lawyers and even some government officials have blamed the delays on the amnesty program, which they said siphoned off the most experienced examiners and officials who had been working on traditional immigration cases. The manpower shortages have been filled slowly, attorneys complained, and when they are, newly hired replacements cause more errors and snags because of their lack of seasoning.
Lost Some Small Gains
Regional INS officials, who before the start of the legalization program last May had finally begun to make inroads into streamlining a program that had been plagued for years with long lines and delays, admitted that the personnel shortages have cost them many of the small gains they had made.
"Right now we're doing 10 ton of work with a five-ton truck," said Ernest Gustafson, the INS Los Angeles district director. "We're hoping the public will be patient until the needed resources are allocated."
Five nights a week, immigrants flock to the federal building in downtown Los Angeles, bringing along sleeping bags, televisions and radios, to guarantee a spot in line the next morning. When the doors open, those who are lucky enough to get an appointment number flood into Room 1001, a massive chamber divided by desks and partitions. There, they crowd benches and chairs with children and friends, waiting for hours and wondering whether their papers are in order or whether they will have to return and face the lines another night.
"It's like a zoo," said Tina Ramirez, a secretary who recently spent half a day there with a friend from Mexico. Like many others, she will have to return for another appointment.
Critical of Washington
Many attorneys credit local INS officials with working hard to overcome their logistical problems. They criticize Congress and high-ranking INS officials in Washington for not adequately funding the Western region office, which alone has accounted for more than 58% of the nation's amnesty filings.
But some lawyers, frustrated over the long delays, have filed lawsuits against the agency to force an end to the confusion. In one legal action, attorneys are asking a federal judge to appoint an independent court master to oversee the agency's compliance.
"We have paper gridlock down there (at the INS downtown office)," said James R. Gotcher, one of three attorneys who sued the INS on behalf of 49 immigrants in federal district court last October. "They are using a horse-and-buggy system in the space age."
Gotcher tells of clients who have gone without responses from the INS for more than a year while waiting for "simple answers or a single document." In other cases, he alleges, files have been lost repeatedly.
As a result, attorneys said, delays that were barely tolerable in the past have now become intolerable.
Program Bogs Down
The INS' registry program, which is a speedy naturalization process for undocumented aliens who have lived in the United States since Jan. 1, 1972, has bogged down. Last May, when the amnesty program started, the waiting period for registry interviews was only 90 days. It is now eight months, said Angelo Paparelli, an attorney who heads the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. The delays threaten to cause havoc among immigrants who are trying to decide whether they should wait for registry or apply for amnesty, which ends only four months from now.
"It's really a disaster," Gotcher said. "The system was barely getting along before and legalization came along and totally destroyed it."
Almost every non-amnesty immigration program handled by the INS' Western region showed tremendous growth in the last year. INS officials reported that asylum requests, which totaled barely 2,400 cases in 1986, exceeded 6,600 cases last year. A major change in the registry law, which previously had allowed only immigrants who had been in the United States since 1949 to apply, resulted in 22,000 applications a year--up from no more than 20 cases annually in years past.
The requirements of the new immigration law have also put added strains on INS offices. The employer sanctions provision, which demands identity documents from all working aliens, was responsible for a 28% increase last year in the number of requests for new "green cards"--temporary work authorizations--and other documents.
Government officials agree that there have been some paper-work problems created by the amnesty program, but they deny that there is massive confusion.
"In any administrative process where this amount of work is involved and where the amnesty program has caused key personnel to be moved, it certainly affects other facets of the agency," said Michael C. Johnson, a special U.S. attorney defending the INS against the lawsuits. "But there's no indication that the system has completely broken down."
Whatever the scope of the troubles, both attorneys and government officials said that logistics problems became evident soon after the Los Angeles INS office's most experienced examiners began transferring over to the amnesty program last April.
According to Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the INS in Washington, most of those hired to work in the legalization program were retired agency workers, supplemented when necessary by examiners and other workers. "We gave the local offices a fair amount of latitude in using their own people for the amnesty program," Jervis said, adding: "We tried to discourage them from using too many."
But in the INS Western region, and particularly in Los Angeles, it quickly became apparent to local officials that they would have to use a higher proportion of their own examiners than in other regions.
'Lost More People'
"Because we had more legalization offices than anywhere else and expected the greatest numbers of immigrants applying for amnesty, we lost more people to the program," said James Booe, deputy assistant regional commissioner for examinations.
Paparelli estimated that after transfers to legalization, the Los Angeles INS office lost "as many as half of their experienced examiner staff." Booe acknowledged that the number lost was "a considerable percentage" but doubted that it was as high as 50%.
"I don't think the impact has been as comparable anywhere else in the country, except perhaps Miami or some offices in Texas," he said.
This year, the INS Western region, which had an annual budget of $10.3 million in 1987, expects to add at least 30 examiners and clerical workers to its staff of 350, Booe said. The largest number will be hired in Los Angeles, he said.
Gustafson and other INS officials said they hope that much of the confusion will be straightened out by April, when their examiner staff in the Los Angeles office is expected to be back at full strength. At the same time, Booe said, the agency plans to start a new direct-mail program designed to cut down the long lines of applicants.
Despite cynicism about any immediate remedy, many immigration lawyers still put faith in the INS' latest plans. Tasoff was heartened recently when several of the cases he thought had disappeared forever into the drop box of Room 1001 were answered by INS officials--three months later.
"If they ever got enough experienced people working there, the drop box might actually work well," Tasoff said. "But it's going to have to work well for a long time before I try it again."