THE world's largest amnesty program for illegal immigrants is entering its third year amid lingering signs of confusion and concern among many of those trying to become permanent United States residents. Federal authorities, while acknowledging that the latest phase of the legalization program started off slowly, say it has picked up smartly in recent months. They expect most of the 3 million aliens who have applied for amnesty to eventually become US residents.
But immigrant-rights activists worry that complicated deadlines and difficulties in meeting educational requirements could lead to thousands of aliens being shouldered off the path to permanent legal status. They want more publicizing of the legalization program.
``The turnout has been lower than expected,'' says Luis Torres, director of legalization for the US Catholic Conference.
These and other issues surrounding the impact of the sweeping Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 will be taken up in House subcommittee hearings today and later this month.
Among the items probed will be how well the landmark law is doing in curbing the flow of illegal immigrants entering the country along the dusty US-Mexican border.
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials are trumpeting its effectiveness. They note that arrests along the 1,900-mile border - traditionally used as a gauge of the level of illegal migration - are down 35 percent so far this year over last year and almost 50 percent below what they were the year before the immigration law was enacted.
They attribute a good part of the dip to the sanctions provision of the law, which is designed to thwart illegal immigration by penalizing employers who hire the aliens, thus (in theory) taking away their motive for coming.
But other specialists say it may be too early to bring out the pom-poms. They note that other factors - including diversion of border patrol agents to other duties and the amnesty program itself, which has allowed thousands of aliens to cross the border legally who before would have done so clandestinely - could account for part of the dip.
``It is a little too early to attribute all of the effect to one cause,'' says Michael White, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, which is studying the law's impact.
Perceptions also vary on how well the amnesty program is going. The program, which is two years old, is now in its second phase. Under the first phase, aliens were granted temporary resident status, a designation they must maintain for 18 months before being considered for permanent status. They then have one year to apply for permanent residency.
INS officials estimate that about 41 percent of those now eligible for Phase 2 of the program have come forward. They are expecting close to 97 percent of the more than 1.8 million general amnesty applicants (another 1.2 million are seeking permanent residency under a special agriculture worker program) to eventually receive permanent ``green cards.''
``I don't think many of these people are going to miss this opportunity,'' says Duke Austin with the INS in Washington.
But immigrant-rights advocates fear many might. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that only 25 percent of those eligible for Phase 2 have come forward so far.
One source of confusion is the staggered deadlines. Under Phase 1, all applicants had to file their papers by the same date, May 4, 1988. Phase 2 deadlines are determined by when a person filed for temporary residency.
``Many are not even aware of the Phase 2 requirements,'' says Domingo Rodriguez, head of the Los Angeles Unified School District's amnesty program.
To make it easier, the INS has decided to allow those with temporary resident permits to submit their applications any time rather than wait the required 18 months.
But immigrant-rights activists would still like to see the agency publicize the legalization program more, rather than relying mainly on mailings.
Another concern is whether there will be enough classroom space. To obtain permanent residency, immigrants have to show they have a basic knowledge of English, US history, and civics. They can do this by taking a certain number of hours of classroom work or taking a special test.
Some urban areas have been slow to set up special English classes, and some rural areas don't have them at all. Still, to help things here, the INS last week said it would soon offer a simplified video exam for those deciding to take the proficiency-test route. One has already been in use in the INS's western region, where some 10,000 immigrants have taken it.