"What if we can't prove we've been here since 1982?" asked Josefina, a young woman with dark, Indian features, who said she left her native Guatemala six years ago because of "the killings."
She explained that she and her mother have worked as domestics and her two brothers have labored in garment factories since they arrived in Los Angeles, but they have always been paid in cash. The family's rent and utility receipts are in one brother's name.
"And what about all those requirements?" asked Guadalupe, a fellow student at a Los Angeles adult school. Born in Mexico, she lives with her sister, works full time as a restaurant hostess and is studying for a high school diploma. "We're in school, learning English and American history, but how about the thousands who have lived here for years and haven't learned?"
Pondering an uncertain future and possibly moving to Canada, Josefina was sure of only one thing: "I won't go back to Guatemala." Guadalupe, who remembers the bloody political violence that racked her country before she left, said she is not going anywhere. "If they deport me, I'll return, even if I have to cross back into the country illegally."
At meetings in church and union halls, community and school auditoriums, immigrants are wrestling with similar questions and a range of emotions as they learn about the new immigration reform law that calls for sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens and that grants legal status, or amnesty, to those who can prove they have lived continuously in the United States since before Jan. 1, 1982. A more liberal provision grants amnesty to those who have spent at least 90 days working in U.S. agriculture during the 12-month period that ended May 1.
In Orange County, illegal aliens have been flocking to information sessions held by Catholic Charities, an arm of the Diocese of Orange. They come in such numbers that the organization has had to move the twice-weekly sessions from its own offices to a union hall in Santa Ana.
Ted McCabe, the group's immigration attorney, said that nearly 2,000 undocumented immigrants have attended the sessions.
Questions abound: "Will I be disqualified if I've used a false Social Security card to work?" "Will an outstanding bill for our last child's delivery at a county hospital hurt our chances?" "If (the authorities) catch me during this period, will I be disqualified?" "Where can I sign up to learn English?"
"That is the major concern of most of them--learning English--since generally these are people with less than six years of education," McCabe said. "They don't even have high literacy in their native language."
Nazario, a 24-year-old Mexican who lives in Santa Ana, said he is confident he can learn enough English to pass an exam. It would be better to be legal, he said, but not if an unsuccessful application for amnesty only ends up costing him his job as a janitor.
"We didn't come here for the fun of it; we came here because we needed work," he said. "I have to support my mother and my sisters, who don't work."
The answers from immigration lawyers and consultants, immigrants' rights advocates and church organizations are often indefinite--and sometimes contradictory. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency charged with writing the regulations to answer these questions, has yet to formulate them. And even some agency officials admit confusion.
The landmark law, which leaves some key decisions up to the executive branch, is "a skeleton of a skeleton," according to one lawyer. Enacted Nov. 6, it calls for a six-month educational period during which the agency will also write the regulations to implement the law. For a year, beginning May 5, the agency will accept amnesty applications and those found to qualify will be granted temporary resident status. After 18 months, those who can show a "minimal understanding" of English and knowledge of U.S. history and government will become eligible for permanent status. Citizenship would be available to them beginning in 1993.
The INS faces a formidable task. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 3 million to 5 million illegal aliens in the United States. In the six-county INS Los Angeles district alone, officials say they expect to process about 3,000 applications daily during the initial one-year application period.
Meanwhile, most immigrants and their advocates are at a loss as to how to proceed. Some groups are already challenging the law's implementation in court, while others suggest that some activists who opposed the law are adding to the confusion by frightening immigrants away from the law.
"A Pandora's box has been opened," said Linda Wong, attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "But it will be quite a while before any kind of coherent response is formulated."
One of the biggest concerns is that the INS will take a narrow view of the law, imposing stringent requirements that will make it difficult for applicants to qualify.