The alien amnesty deadline should be extended. ... because of the poor job the INS has done

THE House Judiciary Committee voted March 31 to extend for six months the legalization program of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which is scheduled to end May 4. An extension of at least six months is crucial; a one-year extension would be even more appropriate. While it is too early to evaluate the employer sanctions side of the new law, the generous amnesty program will be a failure unless extended.

Congress arbitrarily picked Jan. 1, 1982, as the date from which illegal aliens who continuously resided in the US would be eligible for amnesty, because Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates led Congress to believe that this date would lead to 3.9 million general amnesty applications, a figure the US could reasonably accommodate.

Now the INS has rewritten history by saying that it expects only between 1.3 and 1.5 million applicants by May 4.

Twelve months would have been far too short a period for the amnesty program to succeed, even if funding for public education had not been delayed for months. In light of the historical fear of the INS, which usually deports people, the belated efforts in these last few weeks to step up publicity and begin advertising at ``ethnic'' events and in languages other than English cannot possibly rectify the total failure early on to effectively publicize the amnesty program.

The INS will let applicants file skeletal applications by the May 4 deadline, with 60 days to document the application, but applicants are still required to reach the legalization offices by May 4. Recent staff cuts, moreover, make it unlikely that the INS will be able to process even skeletal applications by May 4.

The failure of the education effort was compounded by policy changes such as those relating to the treatment of visa reentries, the definitions of ``felony'' and ``misdemeanor,'' questions on whether noneligible relatives would be deported, or whether an AIDS test would be required. These changes added to the confusion regarding eligibility requirements.

Frequently, the INS has adopted restrictions as a matter of ``policy'' as opposed to a formal rule or regulation. One example of this was its midstream announcement that aliens would thenceforth be required to produce documentary evidence of ``final disposition'' of court cases or encounters with the law, even if the incident occurred in another state, and even though the INS has vastly superior access to computer resources and records of that sort.

Other informal ``policies'' that drastically reduced applications were the INS strategy of holding back final determinations so as not to discourage applicants who might have heard of denials, and the decision to carry out neighborhood and workplace raids even during the legalization period. Only recently have applicants begun to hear that their applications had been approved, so the word of mouth necessary for a good turnout never occurred. Raids in some cities, including Dallas, occasionally resulted in actual amnesty applicants being deported.

Applications were also deterred by the tremendous bureaucratic discretion of individual INS adjudicators (themselves often confused and sometimes poorly informed about the latest policy changes), a marked tendency to accuse some legitimate applicants of fraud, and the differing eligibility standards from office to office. Voluntary groups and agencies, like those we work with in Dallas, were forced to exercise additional caution and care in completing applications, further lengthening the application process.

These inconsistencies and changes meant that many people who were initially turned away were actually eligible, and many others initially recognized as eligible were later turned away because of new restrictions. Such inconsistencies violate notions of fundamental fairness as well as equal protection of the law.

These flaws in implementation make clear that justice requires an extension of the amnesty period. The humane and generous aspect of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, its promise of amnesty, remains unfulfilled. The recent report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pointed out that even if 400,000 new applicants are reached before May 4, the remaining illegal population would be almost twice the size of the population legalized. Surely that flies in the face of congressional intent to ``wipe the slate clean'' and allow those eligible to start anew.

Given the employer sanctions of the new law, those eligible aliens who fail to apply for amnesty will create a threat to social stability, as they constitute the most submerged underclass in United States history - not only unable to come out of the shadows, but barred from getting a job to support themselves and their families. Does Congress really want to ``starve out'' these eligible aliens?

Instead of neglecting the better side of our nature, Congress should seize this opportunity to reassert the generous impulse and extend the amnesty program.

Joe W. Pitts III coordinates the Dallas Bar Association's Amnesty Appeals effort. Vanna K. Slaughter directs the Immigration Counseling Services of Dallas Catholic Charities.

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