An exercise in trust

IT'S taken three months, but the amnesty program for longtime illegal aliens in the United States is finally gathering momentum. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials expect that the program will entice some 2 million aliens out of the shadows. So far, some 98 percent of applicants, who must document that they have been in the country more or less continuously since before Jan. 1, 1982, have been recommended for approval.

It will be a long and difficult road. There is a paradox inherent in expecting those in the country illegally to reconstruct a paper trail to prove their presence. What paycheck stubs are there, for instance, for someone who has been paid in cash?

Still, people have been coming forward, their affidavits and other documents in hand, to the legalization centers for help in processing. The most successful centers have generally been those in the West and Southwest, where the word has gone out through relatively homogeneous immigrant (largely Hispanic) communities. Offices in the Northeast, however, have been operating well below capacity, and authorities aren't quite sure why.

Immigration reform has been a sticky issue for some time; it's hard to determine in advance what will work to control borders without trampling on the civil rights of citizens and other legal residents, and without depriving the economy of the growth that new workers and consumers can provide. So endorsement of the new law must be somewhat tentative. Over time, it may need some tinkering to work better.

Meanwhile, granting amnesty to those who have been in the country for some time, in many cases making quite positive contributions, is surely more just than deporting such people en masse. The numbers of amnesty applicants - though far below what some observers had expected - indicate a growing trust that those who meet standards and can document their stay in the United States will be treated fairly. And the INS has surprised some skeptics with its fairness.

Unfortunately some individuals have been holding back for fear that relatives unable to qualify for amnesty would be discovered and deported. In fact, confidentiality provisions of the new law are intended to prevent INS enforcement agents from using any information derived from the legalization process to seek deportments. And any individual caught in, say, a workplace raid would be in a better position to avoid deportment if his or her spouse could demonstrate legal resident status, complete with green card.

But it should be no big surprise if aliens have trouble understanding this. The word still needs to be put out better.

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