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U.S. Acts to Curb Fraud in Worker Amnesty Process

Times Staff Writer

U.S. immigration authorities Wednesday announced a series of steps designed to clamp down on what they characterized as “massive” fraud in the farm-worker amnesty program throughout California.

The plan, which has already brought criticism, includes the use of telephone “hot lines” to verify documents, the videotaping of interviews with amnesty applicants and the bolstering of anti-fraud review staffs. Critics fear that the videotapes, intended to dissuade phony applicants, could actually frighten legitimate amnesty-seekers, but federal officials disagree.

“We’re not going to roll over and let fraud be perpetrated on . . . the American people,” said Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, at a news conference here.

In recent weeks, officials said, INS examiners in California have been recommending denial of 65% or more of all farm-worker amnesty applications, largely because applicants have submitted fraudulent documents. The incidence of fraud has risen dramatically as the Nov. 30 deadline for farm-worker amnesty applications nears, officials say.

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About 120,000 farm-worker applications in the four-state western region are currently being reviewed because of indications of fraud, Ezell said.

His comments reflect the agency’s growing concern about fraud and the unexpectedly large number of applications submitted under the farm-worker program. Officials anticipated receiving up to 500,000 applications nationwide, but it now appears that more than 1 million people will ultimately apply. California leads the nation with more than 500,000 applications.

While not condoning fraud, immigrants’ rights groups are concerned about the videotapes, which INS officials say will be used only on an occasional basis and should not dissuade valid applicants.

“Tapes are extremely intimidating,” said Roberto Martinez, a Chicano activist who works with migrants in San Diego. “The whole process is already intimidating enough, even without videotapes.”

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But James Turnage, INS district director in San Diego, said, “We are here to help the bona fide applicant.”

The general amnesty program, which raised the possibility of legal status for illegal aliens who lived in the United States since 1982, had an overall rejection rate of about 2%, the INS reported. About 1.7 people nationwide applied for amnesty under that program.

The farm-worker initiative, instituted after lobbying by Western growers who feared they would lose workers, was crafted with an 18-month application period and more liberal requirements than the general amnesty program--a fact that the INS says accounts for the higher incidence of fraud. In order to qualify, field laborers need only show that they worked 90 days in U.S. agriculture during a recent one-year period.


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