Amnesty gate opened wide. US urging illegal aliens to apply as deadline nears

Harold Ezell, the top immigration official in the West, is standing in the center of the church hall in a pin-stripe suit and a turquoise sombrero the size of a small inner tube. The hat is slightly turned up in the back, imparting a faint resemblance to Sally Field in ``The Flying Nun.'' A Mariachi band is playing in the foreground. Several dozen Hispanics are sitting on folding chairs in the background, eating free hot dogs as their children clutch helium-filled balloons. Before the night is over there will be folk dancers, free tortillas, fire engines for the children to ogle - and, of course, Mr. Ezell, long one of the toughest cops on the immigration beat, dispensing autographs and information about how illegal aliens can become legal United States residents.

The scene in this ethnic community south of Los Angeles is part of the homestretch effort of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to encourage aliens to apply for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

As the year-long program enters its final month, the agency is tapping everything from Madison Avenue to the madcap to get out the word on the program and spur those eligible into coming forward.

Even as it does, however, critics contend that the efforts are too little, too late and that the number of aliens applying will be well below the INS's original estimates. As a result, pressure continues to build in Congress to extend the deadline beyond May 4, despite a recent move by the INS to loosen filing rules.

``The expected surge of applications does not appear to be materializing,'' says Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza, an umbrella group of community-based Latino groups.

So far, some 1.1 million aliens have applied for general amnesty under the reform law, while another 341,000 have filed under a special farm-worker program. The INS originally estimated 2 million general applicants might come forward, though it now figures the number will be closer to 1.35 million.

Because no one knows the exact size of the illegal population in the United States, it is impossible to be sure what percentage of eligible aliens has applied. Nevertheless, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has put the number eligible - those living in the US before Jan. 1, 1982 - at 1.8 million to 2.5 million.

Thus, even if applications continue to rise in the final four weeks, as they are modestly doing now, some analysts believe several hundred thousand aliens will be left out.

``I just don't think it is going to be much above 1.3 million,'' says Doris Meissner, a former INS acting commissioner who is co-author of the Carnegie report.

INS officials, for their part, still expect a strong surge in the next few weeks, as other countries that have offered amnesty programs have experienced. They argue that extending the deadline would only confuse aliens. ``We believe the extention wouldn't add to the total number,'' says the agency's Richard Kenney. It would just prompt some ``to wait longer.''

Among factors keeping some aliens in the shadows: concern that families may be split if some members qualify and others do not; confusion about the law; fear of the INS; lack of documention to show continuous residency, and not enough money to pay filing fees.

The INS says it will spend $3.1 million getting out the word on legalization between Jan. 1 and May 4. This will include general pitches - such as ``don't get left behind'' - on billboards, bus shelters, in ethnic media, and on radio. The agency also is using more offbeat methods, such as placing fliers in tortilla packages, staging ``amnesty fairs'' like the one here, pulling advertisements behind airplanes, and in one case in Las Vegas, using an Elvis Presley impersonator to hand out applications to immigrants at a shopping mall. (A trained orangutan was to show up but couldn't make it.)

``This goes farther than any TV advertising,'' says Mr. Ezell of the fair here and similar events. We're using word of mouth, shaking hands, meeting the people.''

Some immigrant advocates consider these publicity antics demeaning or even racist. Others, while lauding the agency for recent efforts, believe the public information drive was slow to start and that more needs to be done to address specific fears like family unity.

``The current advertising pitch comes a little too late,'' says Sergio Munoz, executive editor of La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles.

The INS recently granted aliens an additional 60 days to provide full medical information and other documentation if they submit their basic applications by May 4 - something critics consider a token gesture.

All these factors are being weighed in wood-paneled hearing rooms in Washington. A bill to extend the amnesty program six months was approved by the House Judiciary Committee Thursday. It probably won't be acted on by the full body for a couple of weeks.

While its fate remains uncertain, House staff aides say the six-month extension has a better chance of passing than a one-year extension. Even so, any lengthening of the program faces formidable opposition in the Senate, from Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, a chief architect of the immigration law, among others.

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