Slow response to amnesty. But an exception in Houston thanks to INS outreach efforts

Every afternoon a line begins to form outside the Immigration Service's legalization center in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood north of downtown Houston. And every morning, several hundred people - some having stood all night - are waiting when the center's doors open at 8 o'clock. Yet across the country, traffic is unexpectedly light at many of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's 107 legalization centers for undocumented aliens seeking amnesty under last year's immigration reform. More than one month into the one-year application period that began May 5, some offices that were staffed for up to 300 applicants a day are processing much smaller numbers.

The INS has estimated that at least 2 million illegal aliens nationally will apply for amnesty. But through June 10, only 100,858 undocumented aliens had submitted applications.

By last week, just 1,100 people had applied throughout Arizona. Fewer than 50 applications had been taken in St. Louis, even though demographic reports suggest that there are as many as 15,000 eligible applicants in the area; INS had expected to process 50 applications a day there. Even in southern California, where there are 13 legalization offices and, by some estimates, almost half the country's illegal aliens, just over 10,000 applications have been filed.

``They've been underwhelmed with the turnout,'' says George Newman, a lawyer in Clayton, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. He and many of his colleagues and other legalization workers say too-strict regulations, unclear documentation requirements, and a failure to reach many illegals are causing the low turnout. ``What we see happening is nothing the immigration lawyers didn't expect,'' he adds.

In Houston's office, however, things are different. More than 5,000 aliens filed applications by June 10. Over 98 percent of those have received initial approval and have been sent on to the INS regional office in Dallas. More than 55,000 applications have been distributed.

``There is an absolute flood [of applicants],'' says F.S. Halim, a Houston immigration lawyer. ``I went down to the center with a client during the day and couldn't even get in,'' he adds. Last week he ended up waiting in line with several clients all night.

Observers credit Houston INS director Ron Parra for the district's high turnout, noting that he has worked hard to educate the alien community about the legalization program and to convince them that, in the Houston district at least, the INS wants to be on their side.

Between January and the opening of legalization offices, Mr. Parra held more than 120 legalization workshops with illegal aliens, immigration lawyers, and the private organizations approved by the INS to help aliens complete their applications. He held one seminar exclusively for the heads of the 56 consulates in Houston, and also worked closely with the Houston news media, including the ethnic press.

Gordon Quan, a Houston immigration lawyer, recalls how Parra made sure that one illegal alien with an airtight application went through early on May 5 and came out with a temporary work permit. The alien - holding his new card - was featured on the evening news and the front page of the next morning's newspapers. ``That right there reassured a lot of potential applicants that there was nothing to fear,'' Mr. Quan says.

Parra, who came from New Orleans last July, says he found a community where ``a huge credibility gap had created a deep distrust of INS among aliens.'' He says he has worked hard to ``put the word `service' back in our name,'' and to ``get out and make [us] personal.

``I've really tried to stress that here,'' he adds, referring not only to amnesty applications but to more-conventional immigration cases as well. ``I tell our employees, `Behind every one of these files is a person - let's treat them with that dignity.'''

That attitude has paid off in the amnesty program. Parra says he hopes to increase the staff in the legalization office by nearly 50 percent to accommodate the applicants. In addition, a mobile unit to help cover the Houston district's 30 counties will begin operation in early July.

Higher-than-expected turnout has also prompted the north Texas legalization office in Arlington to add workers and office hours.

But generally around the country, response has been slow. Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington, says applications are ``picking up'' after the slow start, however, and that INS still expects about 2 million aliens to receive amnesty.

Critics of the program say it will be in trouble, however, unless publicity increases, and some of what immigration lawyers are calling ``picky'' regulations are changed.

``The public education effort has been slow at best,'' says Rick Swartz, president of the National Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Forum in Washington. ``There's been nothing to try to reach the undocumented community.''

Mr. Swartz says he also believes that many cases are being ``sat on'' because of uncertainty about how much documentation is needed. INS has notified some of the private agencies helping aliens with their applications that they are being too careful and asking for too much documentation, he adds.

``We're all being overly careful, probably,'' says Roger Wolf, a lawyer in Tucson, Ariz., ``because we have no minimum guidelines as to what's acceptable. The tendency then is to go with the maximum, which is every piece of paper in the house.''

Swartz says his organization and others will meet with INS officials later this month to see how the process can be standardized and simplified.

Still, many immigration lawyers say some of the INS regulations, or the way they are being interpreted, will have to change if the numbers of applicants is to increase greatly.

``Every time in the regulatory process that the Immigration Service has been confronted with a choice between a liberal interpretation or a conservative one - one that would cut out a large number of people - they've consistently taken the second route,'' says attorney Newman.

He points, for example, to the regulation that says aliens who entered the country legally but overstayed their visa and became illegal had to be ``known to the government.'' Newman says the word ``government'' in federal regulations has always been interpreted as the US government. But immigration is interpreting the word to specify the INS, an interpretation that could deny amnesty to thousands.

How the program treats families that would be split by a strict interpretation of regulations is another concern for immigration advocates.

They note in addition that an AIDS-testing plan announced last week by Attorney General Edwin Meese III could add another bottleneck to the legalization program. Under that plan, all immigrants seeking to enter the United States and all undocumented aliens applying for legal residency would be tested for AIDS. Immigrants testing positive for the disease would be denied entry into the US, while illegal aliens already here who tested positive would be denied legal status.

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