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Why amnesty failed; how to make it work for illegal immigrants.

Why Amnesty Failed

How to make it work for illegal immigrants

Eva has a problem. She's lived in Chicago for eight years as an illegal immigrant. The new immigration law that took effect last May gives her the chance to shed that illegal status for a work permit and eventual citizenship. But Eva lacks the paper trail she needs to prove her history of U.S. residence. She lacks the hundreds of dollars it would cost her to apply. And she lacks the faith that immigration authorities won't deport her children, who didn't begin arriving from Mexico until 1984, two years after the amnesty cut-off date. "If I give them the names of my children," she says, "they'll take them."

As the year-long legalization program draws to a close, there are hundreds of thousands of Evas: illegal immigrants too poor, confused, or afraid to capitalize on its one-time offer. When the program kicked off last May, immigration officials predicted that between 2 million and 3.9 million people would register. But as March began only a million had come forward, and head-counters have consistently deflated their final prediction, which has now sagged to only 1.35 million. To spur a last-minute surge, sombrero-topped immigration officials have been Texas two-stepping from one photo op to another, broadcasting Spanish jingles and attending burrito bakes. They've even begun placing flyers in the bags of tortillas sold in grocery stores, urging people to apply. But all the salsa in San Diego won't coax forth the number of illegals the law was intended to help.

Rep. Charles Schumer wants to buy more time and has asked Congress to extend the deadline for a year. But judged by the contentiousness that accompanied the original act, that may be a hard sell. Congress spent five years cussing over what finally passed in 1986 as the Simpson-Rodino act. The legislation, which passed the House by seven slim votes, tread a narrow path between warring camps. It promised to get tough on new border-crossers by fining employers who hire them. At the same time, it promised to ease up on those who arrived before 1982 by offering legal status. The effort to extend the deadline is made even more difficult by the opposition of Sen. Alan Simpson, the act's cosponsor and a pivotal immigration player.

Supporters of the Schumer extension argue that an extra year's time could coax forth another 400,000 people from the shadows of illegal life. It's not just a humanitarian move on behalf of an easily exploited population, they say, but one essential to a healthy democracy. Illegal aliens are afraid to report crimes or fires. They're afraid to seek treatment for diseases. The persistence of a vulnerable subclass hurts us all. You know the retort: We gave them their chance; if they haven't registered by now, that's their problem. "Instead of being thanked for an act of beneficence, we're hearing the whining of the ungrateful," said Patrick Burns of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, to The New York Times.

What, in fact, is the problem? Across the globe, from Krakow to Krakatowa, the victims of poverty and oppression, numbering hundreds of millions, long to live in the U.S. What keeps hundreds of thousands inside our own borders from stepping forward to fulfill the promise that brought them here in the first place?

Here's the answer: >Publicity: The first key to a successful legalization program is spreading the word. Or spreading lots of words, not just in Spanish but in Creole, Polish, Tagalog, Urdu, Chinese and dozens of other languages. As its word-spreaders, the Immigration and Naturalization Service chose The Justice Group, a consortium of three California public relations firms that bid $10.7 million to do the job. But by almost all accounts, the publicity has failed. "Seriously inadequate...a major program deficiency," is what Doris Meissner, a former INS acting commissioner, called it in a report with Demetrios Papademetriou for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I don't think anybody thinks the INS effort has been enough," said Elizabeth Bogen, who directs the Office of Immigrant Affairs for the City of New York. In private conversation, INS officials in field offices share that assessment.

The campaign has consisted mostly of ads in newspapers and on radio and TV broadcasts, in as many as 36 different languages. As a result, virtually all illegal immigrants know an amnesty program exists. What many don't know is who qualifies, or how to apply, or whom to trust. For those details to spread, the campaign needed to take a more grassroots approach, utilizing church bulletins, hotlines, newsletters, and networks of ethnic groups. Ironically, that was the conclusion of The Justice Group itself in its original proposal. The task "calls for much more than mass media approaches," it said, promising an additional "outreach effort" that ethnic groups say hardly materialized. "There's been a lack of trustworthy information," said Hernando Caicedo of the Mission San Juan, a Washington group that helps illegal aliens apply. "A lot travels by word of mouth."

To pick up the slack, a smorgasboard of ethnic groups, churches, local governments and other groups have attempted their own publicity campaigns. The Archdiocese of New York is distributing flyers in parochial schools and printing notices in church bulletins. Volunteers in a city-run service program are canvassing ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, posting notices in laundromats and grocery stores and broadcasting with sound trucks. After a sweep of the city's Dominican-dominated Washington Heights, applications in nearby immigration offices doubled. Similarly, when the archdiocese of Chicago held an information day, 500 people showed up. "That shows that there are a lot of people out there who still haven't gotten the word," said Cecilia Munoz, who heads the diocese's amnesty efforts.

Individually, some INS field personnel have taken on their own energetic campaigns. They've appeared on radio shows, delivered green cards in hospital wards, and sent valentines to elderly applicants. They even split an 18-foot burrito with undocumented farm workers. One of the most noteworthy efforts has been that of Harold Ezell, the western regional commissioner. A former executive at Wienerschnitzel International, Inc., a hot dog company, Ezell once made headlines with his prescription for illegal immigrants: "catch 'em, clean 'em, and fry 'em." But the New Ezell has taken to donning sombreros at Hispanic boxing matches, and riding in the Chinese New Year parade. In January, The Justice Group launched a campaign that more closely resembles the grassroots efforts of private groups. It's getting good reviews, but too late to create the kind of awareness originally desired. >Fear: From the start, INS officials faced a formidable challenge: to transform their image, Houdini-like, from a bureaucracy of feared cops to one of helpful paper pushers at neighborhood amnesty offices. By definition, the immigrants eligible for this program had spent at least five years hiding from the INS. Now they were being asked to stroll forward into the enemy's lair and commit name, address, and phone number to paper.

To soothe the fears, the INS opened 107 new offices that only process applications for amnesty; this keeps applicants from having to deal with the same agents who may have been trying to deport them. In addition, the agency deputized more than 900 church and community groups, awkwardly dubbed Qualified Designated Entities, to help illegals prepare their applications. So immigrants who don't want to walk straight into the INS can ready their paperwork instead at places like the Ethiopian Community Center or Hispanos Unidos de Virginia. Furthermore, Congress declared all the information in amnesty applications confidential, forbidding the INS from using it for deportation purposes. The INS has followed that rule and, by most accounts, made a good-faith effort to don the sheep's clothing. "They deserve some praise for the general tone of their approach," said Charles Kamasaki of La Raza, a national Hispanic lobby.

For all that, Osmin Martinez had doubts--about nine months' worth of them. Despite a spring, summer, and fall of TV and newspaper ads touting the program, Martinez, a 30-year-old native of El Salvador, waited until February to apply. "I didn't want to try to arrange it because they might arrest me," he said. It comes as no surprise that Martinez's fears are widely shared. "They don't want Immigration to know where they are," said Mary Mercado, director of the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington. "They don't believe [the program] is true." >Family Unity: Illegal immigration typically occurs in stages. Husband or wife arrives first, finds a job and home. Later, with that beachhead established, the rest of the family follows. The U.S. has always recognized family unity as a key provision in immigration law, and we endorse it in international forums like the Helsinki accords. But the amnesty law, which requires each member of a family to qualify on his or her own, is silent on the question of spouses and children. Since applications, which list family members, are confidential, that doesn't mean children and spouses will be deported. But it does mean there are no guarantees of protection should the INS find them.

Congress should have offered more explicit protections to immediate family members and has turned down subsequent legislation that would have done so. But the INS is also to blame. The agency has considerable discretionary powers that it could use to soothe immigrant fears. One way to do that would have been to offer spouses and children a type of limbo status called "extended voluntary departure," a neither-here-nor-there arrangement that forestalls deportation proceedings.

Instead, the agency fed the applicants' fears for six months by sending out contradictory signals. Some field directors promised leniency; others said they were awaiting word from Washington. In October, the INS finally promised not to deport children younger than 18, but only if both parents qualified for amnesty. What if only the wife qualified? Would it deport the husband? The children? The INS said it would take up those questions on a case-by-case basis, using its discretion where unspecified "compelling humanitarian factors" warrant it.

What that might mean in the tangled instance of Eva, the Mexican woman in Chicago, is unclear. Since she arrived in 1980 before the cut-off, she is eligible for amnesty. So is the child she brought with her as a month-old baby. Her other children, who joined her in 1984 and 1985, are not eligible. But their children, Eva's grandchildren, are already U.S. citizens, since they were born here.

Family unity is perhaps the most bitterly contested aspect of the legalization program. Immigration officials like to down-play it, arguing that it affects few families. And they rightly point out that no family members have yet been deported. But volunteers on the front lines say it's the psychology that counts, with applicants unwilling to risk exposing husbands, wives, or children. A survey in Los Angeles found that 30 percent of those who attended an amnesty information program said they failed to file applications due to fears about ineligible family members. "It's an unbelievably big problem," said Munoz, the Chicago amnesty worker. "People are afraid to come forward because of what might happen to their children." >Documentation: To qualify for amnesty, an illegal alien must be able to prove that he or she has lived in the U.S. continually since 1982. They can prove it in lots of ways: with utility receipts, letters to a U.S. address, tax returns, union cards, driver's licenses, report cards, or sworn statements from priests, employers, or neighbors. A California woman even submitted a winning receipt from a Las Vegas slot machine. There are no codified standards of how much proof must be offered. Individual INS officers make their own judgments. But despite the government's flexibility, producing the proof is often the toughest task an applicant faces. Illegal immigrants, by nature, avoid paper trails.

"I just don't have the proof," said Ovel Salguedo, who says he came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1980. Shortly after arriving, Salguedo began washing dishes in a Greek restaurant, where his brother had been working since the previous year. Juan Salguedo, who kept his pay stubs, applied for amnesty and received a temporary work permit in June. But Ovel, who didn't keep his papers, is still searching for the owner of the restaurant, which closed in 1983.

A number of immigrants have found their employers reluctant to acknowledge their past labors. Many were paid in cash, or at rates below the minimum wage. Though the INS guarantees confidentiality, it's no surprise that business men who have been cheating the government out of payroll and Social Security taxes run the opposite direction when asked to sign statements.

The Dallas Times Herald told the story of an Austin restaurant owner who responded to a request for documentation by throwing a roll of toilet paper at his former employee. "Here's the paper you wanted," he said. (By contrast, in an admirable act of corporate responsibility, Levi Strauss loans up to $1,000 to employees wishing to apply for amnesty.) Perversely, it is the immigrants who are exploited the worst--agricultural workers and maids--who often have the toughest time getting former employers to own up. Workers who've been paid in cash may themselves hesitate to come forward since the law requires that they pay back taxes.

For applicants who have moved, the need to gather documents may require long, expensive trips. Felipe, a 35-year-old machinist, settled in Chicago when he first arrived from Mexico in 1978. He moved to Texas in 1986. Although he made a trip back to Chicago to collect rent receipts and contact former employers, he has yet to receive all the paper they promised to send. "We have a lot of cases that have come from California," said Gilbert Jezbera, a legalization worker for the diocese of El Paso. "Witnesses move, neighbors move. It's hard to get proof."

Nearly half of the immigration lawyers and amnesty workers who answered a nationwide poll by the Dallas Times Herald listed documentation problems as the most common reason that eligible immigrants don't apply. >Money: For the Mexicans, Salvadorans, Poles, Filipinos, Sierra Leoneans, Jamaicans and countless others fleeing the repression or poverty of their homelands, the offer of U.S. citizenship may be a hell of a good deal. Still, it isn't free.

Congress required the program to pay for itself. The INS, divvying up the estimated cost of more than 100 new offices and thousands of new employees, charges $185 per person, up to a maximum of $420 a family. Tack on $50 to $100 per person for an AIDS test. Tack on another $75 or so for applicants going through a neighborhood QDE. Tack on from $500 to $1,000, or more, for those who retain an attorney. Not to mention time away from work or the cost of cross-country Greyhound trips in search of five-year-old rent receipts. Though most illegal immigrants work, the costs can still be prohibitive.

Osmin Martinez, a Salvadoran immigrant, has worked in six different restaurants since he arrived in Washington in 1979. He said that his efforts to get written proof cost him more than two weeks of lost work time. "In some of them, they said we don't have anything," he said. "Others, they told me to come back another day, the secretary wasn't there. I thought it was like it would wreck the restaurant to get papers." Though he neither traveled beyond Washington nor hired a lawyer, Martinez estimates that with lost wages his application cost about $1,500.

Where there's need, there's greed. With several million potential clients, instant amnesty offices have sprouted across the country, in such unlikely locations as the back rooms of shoe stores, groceries, and travel agencies. The Los Angeles Times found travel agents in Polish neighborhoods of Chicago who charged $500 simply to fill out the four-page application. An off-duty Miami cop was charging up to $1,200 for Cuban and Haitian couples. In August, investigators who raided the El Norte Company of El Paso found it had done no work at all on most of its 1,500 cases. >Regulations: When the amnesty program began, applicants convicted of drunk driving in Texas were considered ineligible. So were people who had left the country and returned on legal visas. Immigrants with children in foster care couldn't be sure.

Just who qualifies and how has been a matter of confusing and consistent change. Congress laid down the general rules and left the INS to write the fine print, which has been the subject of lawsuits ever since. The INS circulated the proposed regulations in January 1987, even before they were published in the Federal Register, to allow extra time for review and challenge. But the wrangling inside the INS bureaucracy and in the courts is still going on. "A lot of people are confused," said Mary McClymont of the U.S. Catholic Conference. "They know there's a program, but they don't know they qualify. They're self-selecting out."

A particularly important debate focuses on the phrase "known to the government." At stake are the applications of tens of thousands of immigrants. Many of them are former students, who entered the U.S. on a visa valid for as long as they remained enrolled in school. Those who dropped out without leaving the country or securing a new visa became illegal aliens. But they are eligible for amnesty only if their legal breach became known to the government.

The problem is that no one is quite sure what "known to the government" means. Attorneys for the illegal aliens argue it means any government agency--the Social Security Administration, say, or the Internal Revenue Service. The INS, on the other hand, argues "known to the government" means known to the INS. And since the INS is typically the last place an illegal immigrant will spread the news of an invalid visa, that eliminates a lot of applications. A federal district court in Dallas last fall ruled the INS interpretation too narrow. But that decision applies to the Dallas district only, and similar suits are pending throughout the country. >Processing: Probably the best advertisement the INS could post would be hordes of successful alumni. The skeptic disinclined to believe the radio ads or tortilla bags might listen up if he sees his neighbor or brother-in-law walking around with a green-striped I-688 work permit in his pocket.

The 107 INS offices sought a quick turn-around, but some of the original applications took more than six months to process. The four regional processing centers have turned into bottlenecks, with computer problems and lost files slowing decisions to a trickle. In Chicago, only 12 percent of the 65,000 who applied by mid-January had received word of the INS's final ruling. These delays have kept the good news from filtering back into the community. (And with approval rates of about 97 percent, there was a lot of good news to spread.) Too many potential applicants still have a wait-and-see attitude.

Yeah, yeah, and the ozone layer's leaking too, you say--so what? While a failing amnesty program may not rank at the top of the world's ills, unlike many others, it's one we can fix. First thing to do is extend the deadline to apply. The year-long deadline was arbitrary in the first place. Agricultural workers get 18 months; special classes of Haitians and Cubans get two years. Congress should simply accept that immigrant fears ran deeper and the government program ran slower than we all hoped and give it some more time. What's there to lose?

Next, fix what's gone wrong. For those worried about their family members, that's easy: promise not to deport them. For those who lack the money, defer the application fee. Let applicants pay it off gradually. The documentation problem is a bit tougher but still solvable. Work harder to convince employers they won't be penalized for signing affidavits. Liberalize the burden of proof--requiring, say, a document per year, rather than one every three or six months. (That loosening could be accompanied by higher penalties for fraud.) Most of all, continue to hit the streets with sound trucks, church flyers, and door knockers. Keep the sombreroed INS officials out there holding burrito bakes. The kind of campaign that should have started a year ago finally seems to be working.

The employer sanctions that accompanied the amnesty bill have already made Eva's life tougher. Faced with potential fines, her employer asked to see her work permit. Without one, she lost her job last fall. Her problem might not be as bad as those of the friends and family she left behind in Mexico, but it's easier to address. A better world gets built a step at a time. Write your congressman today. (And send a copy to Senator Alan Simpson, 260 Dirksen Bldg., Washington, D.C. 20510)
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Title Annotation:includes related information
Author:DeParle, Jason
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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