Irma de Jesus Efigenio was fit to be tied. “Don’t get me started,” she warned, standing in line at the immigration office with her infant son in tow.
Efigenio clutched the baby stroller bar tightly as she launched into a non-stop tirade against the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Since filing her application for amnesty more than a year ago, she said she has logged more than four times the required 40 hours of English instruction. She has missed work from her house-cleaning job and taken long bus rides to spend hours standing in line at immigration offices.
“All they ever do is tell me to go home and wait. . . . It’s been 14 months and I haven’t received a single notice in the mail, not a word!” the immigrant from Central America said, becoming increasingly angry as she spoke. “The waiting is terrible. The whole thing is a mess. It’s enough to make you lose hope.”
Every day, a constant stream of angry, worried or confused immigrants file past the “problem window” at the INS’ legalization office on Wilshire Boulevard. Like Efigenio, they are trying to avoid the dire consequence of not completing the two-phase amnesty process: reverting to illegal status and facing deportation again.
By most accounts, the second phase of this massive amnesty program has gotten off to a slow start, riddled by confusion over complicated deadlines and education requirements, minimal publicity and funding problems. Drastic cuts threatened by the federal government could spell further trouble.
More worrisome to INS officials than the problem cases that sometimes fall through the cracks are the thousands of applicants who haven’t turned up at all for Phase 2 processing. During the first part of the program, which ended last June, immigrants were granted temporary resident status, a status they must maintain for 18 months before being considered for permanent resident. They then have one year to apply. Later, they may be eligible for citizenship.
In this second phase, hundreds of thousands of applicants throughout the country must show that they have a basic knowledge of English, U.S. history and civics. A long list of exceptions will exempt many applicants from having to attend special classes. Setting up these classes and testing procedures has been no easy task, and hasn’t even begun in some places.
Only about 17% of the more than 300,000 applicants in the West who have become eligible for Phase 2 have claimed their much-coveted permanent resident “green cards.” Before the program is over, about 1.8 million amnesty applicants in the region and 3 million nationwide are expected to gain permanent legal status.
While immigration officials say that it is still early in the program and there is no cause for alarm, some immigrant advocates are beginning to question whether the amnesty program will live up to its promise.
INS officials point out that there are still more than seven months left before final application deadlines begin coming due. Western Region officials, however, acknowledging some concern, recently eased their rules hoping to clear some of the confusion over application deadlines. Immigrants now may file their applications for permanent resident at any time, rather than having to wait for the 18-month period to elapse.
“I’m somewhat concerned. All of us have mulled over what would happen if we gave this party and nobody came. We had the same concern in Phase 1 and it proved unfounded,” said Peter Gordon, chief of examinations at the INS Western Regional Processing Facility in Laguna Niguel, where thousands of amnesty applications are adjudicated.
“Obviously, if I see my figures decrease, then I’m going to sit down at the drawing board to figure out what we have to do to modify the regulations for people to come forward,” he said.
Domingo A. Rodriguez, coordinator of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s amnesty program, says that the low rate of Phase 2 applications may be worse than federal officials admit. Surveys of the district’s 120,000 amnesty students show that less than 3% of eligible applicants have actually returned to file their applications, he said.
‘A Dismal Failure’
Rodriguez said potential Phase 2 applicants are “totally confused” by the program’s staggered deadlines and educational requirements, which were spelled out in the 1986 immigration reform law. He places much of the blame on INS’ outreach efforts, which he called “a dismal failure.”
While the federal government spent more than $11 million to publicize Phase 1 of the amnesty program, INS officials said no money was budgeted for Phase 2. And the state has been “sitting on” $900,000 earmarked for outreach, Rodriguez and other immigrant advocates complained.
The federal government has budgeted $4 billion to reimburse the states for educational, health and welfare services for the new immigrants. California’s share is $1.8 billion.
California, with nearly 60% of the nation’s amnesty applicants, has been in the lead in establishing programs for the immigrants. Even so, the state Health and Welfare Agency, which is administering the federal funds, has been roundly criticized for being slow in releasing funds to community groups and school districts.
“They have been very slow and bureaucratic,” said Linda Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Some community programs that have been operating for several months have yet to receive a penny, she said.
Many of the community organizations that guided immigrants through Phase 1 of the program have scaled back or closed down altogether, she said. Many lost money because the limited government reimbursement did not cover expenses, she said.
“The immigrant community’s need for help through Phase 2 is not being addressed,” she said. Although officials say that immigrants can receive information at INS legalization offices, coalition members are already receiving reports of applicants being overcharged as much as $500 for filling out forms by unscrupulous private consultants and attorneys, Mitchell said.
Still, Mitchell added, “the bad guys this time are not the INS, but the state.”
INS More Cooperative
Her statement reflects a big change in the often contentious relationship between immigrant rights groups and the INS during the earlier part of the program. Like immigrant advocates throughout the country, the coalition had strongly criticized the agency for what it called a restrictive application of the law. The amnesty program, which forced the federal agency to serve illegal immigrants rather than deport them, forged a “more cooperative spirit” between the two factions, Mitchell said.
This time it is the state that’s holding things up, Mitchell said. “That’s where the logjam is.”
A battle is under way in the Legislature to add $50 million to the $121 million already budgeted this year for the basic education program for immigrants. Education Department officials have said that unless the money is added, the state will be forced to close classes in the program, which is already badly under-funded. In some areas of the state, where the demand for classes far outstrips services, there are waiting lists of up to six months.
Gov. George Deukmejian and other state officials, however, argue that if more money is allocated for education, this will, in turn, strain health and welfare programs for the new immigrants.
But educators see it differently: “We have a golden opportunity as a society to help people become productive citizens. If we let it slip through our fingers, we will only end up hurting ourselves in the long run,” said Rodriguez, of the Los Angeles school district. Amnesty students in the district average about 174 hours of class work, well beyond the INS requirement.
Most school districts in the state have been slower than Los Angeles to set up classes for amnesty applicants, Rodriguez said. And “most states haven’t even gotten started,” he said.
Noting that much of the money appropriated for the program this year has gone unclaimed by the states, President Bush has proposed taking back $600 million of the $4 billion Congress earmarked for state reimbursement. And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has proposed transferring $200 million for emergency services for Soviet and Indochinese refugees.
“The interest level on immigration is not there anymore. Congress is moving on to new ideas and, in the process, taking away pieces of the pie from the people they set about to legalize two years ago,” said Peter Schey, a leading immigration attorney and director of the National Center for Immigrants Rights Inc. in Los Angeles.
Reneging on Promise
Added Rodriguez: “In its quest to balance the budget, the Administration is attempting to renege on a promise made to help these people.”
Rick Swartz, of the Washington-based National Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Forum, said that there are some “serious efforts” under way for compromise legislation to allow lending the money earmarked for amnesty programs to other refugee services, but returning it as the program picks up speed.
“The need for this money is inevitably going to increase as newly legalized people continue to get their feet on the ground and feel more comfortable seeking educational and health services,” Swartz said. “These are massive new programs and the administrative structures needed to implement them are still being worked out at the local level.”