Federal officials warned Thursday that many applicants for amnesty may have a false sense of security about their long-term status in the United States.
In San Diego and elsewhere in California, authorities said, only about 13% of eligible amnesty seekers have submitted paper work for the program's so-called Phase II, which allows aliens who entered the United States illegally to remain permanently as legal immigrants. Most applicants have only been granted temporary legal status in the United States.
Amnesty seekers who do not apply for the second phase within 12 months revert to illegal status and are subject to deportation.
Most applicants still have at least eight months to apply, but there is widespread concern about the small number of applications, a shortfall that appears to be related to misunderstandings about the process and a false sense of long-term security.
"It's our feeling that there's a lot of confusion in the amnesty world," said Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner for the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, who addressed the issue during news conferences in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Word of the low turnout comes at a time when educators in San Diego and elsewhere have already expressed concern about their ability to provide needed English-language and U. S. government instruction to large numbers of amnesty applicants, most of whom are required to demonstrate basic knowledge of the language and U. S. civics.
Nationwide, about 1.8 million people applied under the general amnesty program, which was limited to foreigners who had been living illegally in the United States since 1982. Included are about 42,000 applicants in San Diego and Imperial counties.
"We didn't bring these folks this far just to lose them now," said James Turnage, INS district director in San Diego.
In response to the problem, INS officials announced a series of steps. Among other things, authorities said they plan to launch an "aggressive" public information campaign in newspapers and on radio and television, and will also establish information booths at amnesty offices, which, under an extended schedule, will now be open Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Some critics suggest that the INS itself has done an inadequate job of informing recipients about the importance of the second phase. Charges of poor community notice and outreach have dogged the service throughout the program, although officials have dismissed such allegations.
"I think there could be a a lot more outreach and publicity," said Roberto Martinez, a community activist in San Diego who works with the American Friends Service Committee, the social action arm of the Quaker Church. "I have a feeling that people don't recognize the seriousness of following up on the second phase."
In another step, the INS said it will allow recognized social service agencies to administer a 15-question civics test--taken via video screens--that is designed to comply with the English-language and U. S. government requirement.
Those who pass the multiple-choice test--which includes basic questions such as identifying major U. S. political parties and the U. S. capital--are deemed to have met the standard. (Exempt from the requirement are those 15 or younger, 65 or older, U. S. high school graduates and those who received at least 40 hours of English and government instruction during a full academic year at a state-recognized school.)
Those whose English skills are so rudimentary that the test is beyond their skills may meet the language/civics requirement by completing at least 40 hours of an INS-certified course, but some educators have expressed concern about the ability of school districts to provide the needed instruction.
In San Diego, as in other areas, fears have emerged that federal funds designed to offset the costs of providing the classes to tens of thousands of amnesty applicants may not be available in time. Such delays could prevent school districts from hiring the needed instructors, causing some students to be turned away. San Diego educators say they have been able to meet the demand thus far, but they are uncertain about beyond this month.
"We have to determine what we can offer based on the funding," said Ed Spies, principal of Montgomery Adult School in southern San Diego County, one of a number of facilities offering language and civics classes to amnesty seekers.