Maria Gomez used to feel nauseated with fear when her work at a legal service center required her to accompany clients to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in downtown Los Angeles.
Her employers didn't know it, but Gomez was in the United States illegally. Walking into INS offices to serve as a translator or help file documents was the last thing she wanted to do.
"I think that's the worst experience I had in my life, needing to deal with that," said Gomez (not her real name). "Oh my God, believe me, my stomach used to get in knots. It was terrible. But I needed the job. I was afraid to go out and look for another job."
Gomez, 41, who eventually switched to less nerve-racking work at an insurance agency, has generally prospered since moving from Mexico to Los Angeles in 1969.
A slender woman with an air of physical and emotional strength, she raised a son from her brief first marriage and in 1974 bought a Norwalk home. She and her son lived there with her mother, a legal immigrant, until Gomez remarried three years ago and moved to Fontana. Life has been normal in most ways, she said, but lack of legal status was a cloud that never disappeared.
Now Gomez expects to win legal residence through one of the less well-known features of the new immigration law, the "registry" provision, which provides permanent residence to people who have lived in the United States since before Jan. 1, 1972.
According to INS estimates, up to 200,000 people may qualify under this portion of the law, which simply moves up the previous registry date of June 30, 1948.
The experiences of registry applicants resemble those of people eligible under the law's main provisions, but their stories reflect many more years of uncertainty, frustration and sometimes anguish. Some have waged long battles with the INS. Most carry their secret quietly, seeking to merge into the society around them.
Many more--up to 3.9 million, according to INS projections--will qualify under other provisions of the law that provide temporary legal status to people who have lived in the United States since before Jan. 1, 1982, or who performed at least 90 days of agricultural work in the 12 months ending May 1, 1986. These people must later apply for adjustment to permanent status.
Those eligible for registry--so named because applicants "register" their presence here--face fewer conditions than applicants for the other legalization programs and receive permanent status much more quickly. Those who qualify will generally receive permanent residence certificates about three months after applying, according to INS officials.
Legal status "wouldn't really change very much my way of living, but emotionally I think it will mean a lot," Gomez said. One of the most important practical effects, she said, is that it will enable her to visit Mexico. Her husband, a legal immigrant, owns land there that she has never seen.
Gomez's son, who asked to be identified only by the nickname Beto, is less emotional about getting legal residence, but sees its practical importance.
"I've never thought about being illegal or anything, because we've never had any problems," said Beto, 18, an athletic UCLA sophomore who was brought to Los Angeles in 1968 when he was less than a year old. "Citizenship or registry will help me out finding a job, but I kind of (already) consider myself a citizen, a resident."
Beto didn't know that he and his mother had a problem until he was 12, when he qualified for a Little League all-star tournament and needed a copy of his birth certificate to prove that he was not too old to participate.
"I remember I had to keep asking her for the certificate, and she kept putting it off," Beto said. "I finally had to tell her the deadline was coming up. She finally told me and showed it to me. I guess I felt alienated, different from other people. At first it kind of bugged me a little bit."
It turned out that the Little League officials were only concerned about proof of age. The fact that he was born in Mexico was of no interest to them at all.
"It never bothered me after that," he said.
Years of Frustration
For Alfredo Parra, registry should end years of frustrating inability to get legal status. Parra, 57, a Diamond Bar resident who works as an aircraft design engineer, said he was born in San Antonio, Tex., and was taken to Mexico by his parents when he was 1 year old, but he has no absolute proof of this. He has lived continuously in the United States since 1948--he registered with the Selective Service in El Paso on Sept. 18 of that year--so he barely missed qualifying for permanent residence under the old registry law.
Parra's children are adult U.S. citizens, so in 1985 he tried applying for permanent residence through the sponsorship of a daughter.