U.S. Gears Up Amnesty Plan for Field Hands

Times Staff Writer

Federal officials will begin accepting applications Sept. 1 for a long-awaited immigrant field-labor legalization initiative that could create a vast pool of labor designed to assist growers should a shortage of agricultural workers develop, it was announced Wednesday.

The program is the final and least-known amnesty provision of the sweeping 1986 revisions of U. S. immigration law.

The Replacement Agricultural Workers program, or RAW, initiative, product of extensive lobbying by agribusiness interests, particularly Western growers, could involve hundreds of thousands of foreign field hands during its four-year existence, which is to end in September, 1993.

However, the program will not kick in at all until the U. S. Departments of Labor and Agriculture, along with the Bureau of the Census, certify that there is a general paucity of workers in the fields, an action that remains uncertain because only spot shortages have developed to date.

Source of Speculation

How the replacement program would be administered had been the source of considerable speculation until officials of the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service outlined their plans Wednesday at press conferences in San Diego and Los Angeles.

From the viewpoint of undocumented immigrants, the replacement initiative is the least-certain of the three amnesty programs created by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the most far-reaching revision of U. S. immigration law in more than three decades.

Eligible for participation in the replacement program are foreign nationals 18 and older who have worked in U. S. agriculture for at least 20 days during any 12-month period between May 1, 1985, and Nov. 30, 1988. The relatively liberal guidelines are likely to result in a huge pool of potential workers, though many may never qualify for permanent legal status.

In order to qualify eventually for permanent legal residence, newly chosen laborers must work on U. S. farms for 90 days in each of three consecutive years, a requirement that rights groups have criticized as onerous, but one that U. S. officials say is needed to maintain the agricultural labor supply.

"For a lot of people, this program is going to be their last shot at getting amnesty," said William S. King, the Los Angeles-based INS regional director for immigration reform, who oversees implementation of the 1986 immigration law in the Western region--California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam.

Although the precise shape of the replacement program was largely a mystery until Wednesday, authorities say a number of unscrupulous immigration consultants have already been charging migrants exorbitant fees and guaranteeing slots. In addition, the prospective program has been the source of endless rumors in the huge undocumented community.

Along the U. S.-Mexico border in Tijuana on Tuesday evening, many clandestine border-crossers peppered a U. S. reporter with questions about the new amnesty effort they had heard was beginning next month. They, however, will be ineligible, as the program deliberately excludes anyone who entered the United States illegally after Nov. 30, 1988--a proviso included to discourage any rush at the border.

Fraud Predictions Scaled Down

In another agriculture-related development, King scaled down earlier predictions about the extent of fraud in the earlier farm-worker amnesty program, saying fraud would likely not account for more than 15% of the 1.3 million applications received nationwide. Earlier, authorities had spoken of fraud rates involving as many as one-third or more of all cases.

The replacement agricultural-labor program was included in the 1986 law at the insistence of agricultural interests fearful that newly legalized farm workers would desert the fields in droves for better jobs--a fear that has yet to be borne out,

although there has been some evidence of farm hands moving on to other industries where the pay is higher and the working conditions superior.

On yet another amnesty front, King disclosed that officials will provide more time for so-called general amnesty applicants--those who have resided in the United States illegally since 1982--by far the largest group of amnesty-seekers--to complete their transition to permanent legal U. S. residence.

Although the applicants formerly had to file permanent residence papers within 30 months of submitting their initial application, King said guidelines put into effect last month give them 30 months from the date of being approved for temporary residence--a shift that could give some people an additional year or more to apply.

There has been concern that many of the almost 1.8-million general-amnesty aspirants would fail to submit their permanent residence applications on time, thereby reverting to illegal status. But King said almost 45% of applicants in the Western region had moved into the permanent residence application phase, a figure he characterized as encouraging.

"But it's very important that people file as quickly as they can," said King, who acknowledged that the many changes in the evolving, complex program had left many applicants and social workers assisting them perplexed about the process. "We don't want people to procrastinate just because they have some more time."

Ads Feature Olmos

Consequently, the INS has begun a large-scale media campaign, involving, among other things, public service advertisements featuring Edward James Olmos, the Latino actor featured in the "Miami Vice" TV series and the star of the acclaimed movie "Stand and Deliver." Critics have assailed the INS for not reaching out sufficiently to the undocumented community in California and elsewhere.

California accounts for slightly more than half of the almost 3.1 million amnesty applicants nationwide. Citizens of Mexico account for almost 70% of general amnesty applicants and more than 81% of those applying under the law's farm-worker provisions. U. S. authorities expect a similar distribution among those applying under the replacement program.

Those interested in participating in the replacement effort can pick up application cards at INS offices or social service facilities. The documents, requesting basic background information, are to be mailed to a central INS location in Kentucky, along with a $10 fee.

To Be Placed in Pool

The applications will be placed in a pool, to be drawn upon when U. S. officials certify a shortage in farm labor. There is an additional $170 fee if applicants are chosen. Although successful applicants are picked at random, the INS said that preference will be given to undocumented U. S. residents with newly legalized spouses and children.

The policy is a partial effort to resolve the divisions of families wrought by the amnesty program, which left thousands of families split into "legal" and "illegal" members.

However, INS officials said that there is no guarantee that anyone will actually attain legal status under the auspices of the replacement program, which is open only to agricultural workers.

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