Immigrants Must Traverse Paper Jungle

Pedro Zamora was on the line, calling from a pay phone at Costa Mesa's Placentia Avenue.

He had lost his mica , he said--his identification card from the Immigration and Naturalization Service authorizing him to live and work in this country legally. And he needed to go down to the nearest INS office to get a new one. Could I take him?

Pedro had been one of three people we had profiled in March in a story entitled "Life After Amnesty." A recent immigrant from Mexico, Pedro, 23, gained legal status two years ago under the 1986 federal amnesty act along with about 186,000 other immigrants in Orange County.

When I met him, he worked as a day laborer, and I had taken up his time by following him around as he tried to get jobs through a hiring hall in Costa Mesa. I had met his roommates at the tiny apartment on 19th Street that he shared with seven other men. Pedro had no telephone and no car. Most of the money he earned he sent back to his family in Mexico.

The last time we had talked, he was going to Bakersfield to look for work in the farm fields, because work for a day laborer in Costa Mesa was scarce. Now he was back.

When I was profiling him for the story, I once offered to drive him to the Social Security office to apply for a number, he reminded me. For various reasons, we had never made it there. But now, when he asked about a ride to the INS office, I figured I owed him.

The trip was a chance to catch up with this itinerant farm worker-cum-day laborer who lives a life much different from the average Orange County worker. Accompanying him as he inquired about his lost card also afforded me an opportunity to see how the vast machinery of federal immigration bureaucracy treats the hundreds of thousands of people it must keep track of constantly.

We drove into the crowded parking lot, and already the place took on the air of a government office in Latin America. Under a blazing sun, a line of people streamed out the door and into the parking lot of the INS office, housed in a one-story building in a warehouse district. A vendor was selling Paletas de Michoacan, ice pops reminiscent of those from the Mexican state of Michoacan, famous for its fruit crops.

Some men and women, perhaps waiting for friends or relatives in the line, stood under a few trees near the street, watching their small children play among parked cars.

A couple of men lingered near the end of the line, handing newcomers flyers for vocational schools that offered English language instruction and other skills.

Pedro looked dismayed at what he could tell would be a long wait. We peered past the people, and noticed that everyone was waiting to speak to one clerk who manned a booth that said "Information."

The Ritchey Street office is one of 10 INS legalization centers throughout the Orange-Los Angeles-Ventura county area. The offices are set up to serve the needs of those going through the long and complex amnesty process. Many of those in line were coming to arrange the last phase of amnesty, the step that would get them their permanent residency papers.

Very little of the amnesty paper work can be completed by mail; a personal appearance is almost always required. Pedro himself said he has visited INS offices at least 10 times in the past two years.

Because he has no phone, and speaks very little English, Pedro did not call his nearest INS office first to see what he would need to apply for a duplicate ID card, as I might have. In fact, this trip was precisely for that purpose, just to see what it would take.

Earlier, in the car, he had shown me the documents he had brought with him to prove his identity. On a worn bit of paper he had jotted down the ID number from the INS card he had lost. He also had a copy of a fake Social Security card that he had paid hundreds of dollars for several years ago, back when he was still an illegal alien.

I asked him if he thought it would be wise to show INS officials that once he had used a fake ID.

"They already know," he said. "They said to keep using the number until I applied for a new Social Security card."

He had brought pay stubs from the last regular job he had held, as a laborer with a grower in the Bakersfield area.

An INS official hurried past, asking in Spanish if anyone had appointments. She told those who said they did that they would be called when they got to the front.

Pedro began to ask her about his situation.

She cut him off and told him to wait in line and ask the clerk at the information booth.

Thinking I was more savvy in the ways of American bureaucracy, I approached the official. In my most businesslike way, and in English, I explained to her that he only needed to know what he would have to do to obtain his duplicate ID. Was there a form somewhere that he could pick up?

"Wait in this line and ask the clerk when you get to the front," she said, not allowing me to finish.

Pedro waited in line about a half-hour. When he got to the clerk, she pushed a blank form toward him. She listed the types of identification he would need, and told him he would need a money order for $15 to pay for the duplicate ID.

And when he had all that, she said, he would need to come in person to submit the form.

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