WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration, after weeks of delay, Monday proposed rules to implement the landmark immigration law, including fees to be charged people seeking legal resident status beginning May 5.
Alan C. Nelson, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said his agency intends to assess each illegal immigrant seeking legal residency $185, a figure $10 higher than the agency first had proposed.
In addition, dependent children under 18 will be charged $50. But a family will be charged no more than $420, Nelson told a news conference, pointing out that visas for legal immigrants cost $185 per person, with no reduced rate for families.
'Reasonable and Fair'
"We have established a fee structure that is reasonable and fair, assures that the taxpayer will not assume the burden of this program and is within reach of persons who are eligible," Nelson said.
The INS backed off from a proposal for lower fees, including a $400 family rate, because the Office of Management and Budget "didn't think we'd get enough money" to pay for the program, said one Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Nelson repeated his comparison of the charges to "user fees" assessed in national parks, calling the plan "an approach in which the U.S. taxpayers do not pay the cost of benefits to a special group."
Under intense pressure from immigrant interest groups, the INS also backed away from a proposal contained in a draft that would have counted unemployment compensation, along with welfare benefits, on a list of public cash assistance.
Under the law, an illegal immigrant cannot qualify for legal status if he seems likely to become a public charge, relying on social welfare programs. Ways to determine this possibility include looking at employment history and whether he has received government assistance.
By including unemployment compensation in the definition of public cash assistance, the INS could disqualify huge numbers of immigrants seeking legal status, activists had complained.
But this concession was not enough to protect the INS from immediate attack. At a press conference in Los Angeles, a coalition of immigrants' rights activists criticized the proposed regulations as overly restrictive and the fees as too high.
"It was never Congress' intent to put the burden of legalization on the immigrant population," said Linda Wong of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
A family of four applying for amnesty could face total costs of about $1,400, according to a summary of expenses released by the coalition.
In addition to the $420 INS fee, for example, a family might pay $500 to a voluntary agency for help in filling out the applications, $200 for medical examinations and about $200 for photographs, fingerprinting, police clearance and certification of documents. In addition, the family might lose about $80 in lost work time.
When asked what would happen to those who want to apply but cannot pay, Nelson replied: "Basically, then they're not going to be qualified."
The difficult situation in which the INS is buffeted from inside the government--not only by the OMB but by many members of Congress--and from groups on the outside is symptomatic of the difficulties facing the agency as it begins the massive job of implementing the complicated and controversial law.
An estimated 4 million illegal immigrants who have resided in the country since before 1982, except for a maximum single absence of 45 days and total absences of 180 days, will be eligible to seek legal status. The INS expects 2 million people to apply. Farm workers who were employed at least 90 days during the year ending last May also are eligible.
Thus, in less than two months, the INS must coordinate a flood of applications through 108 special field offices across the nation. Just as important, the agency must shift its image from enforcer of border law to ally in the process of gaining legal residency.
The transformation has been difficult so far, and prospects seem bleak. The proposed regulations likely will bring a barrage of court challenges because the rules are "more restrictive than Congress intended" the law to be, said Dale Frederick Swartz, president of the National Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Forum, a coalition of 100 organizations.
Harry Pachon, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said his group is "really disappointed" in the INS because it has focused only on the first step of the two-step process.
A person is first granted temporary residency and after 18 months may seek permanent residency. After five years of permanent residency, the immigrant may apply for citizenship.
In outlining the fees for temporary residency, the INS is leaving open the question of how much in fees will be charged in the second step, preferring to see how many people apply and how much in fees is collected.
Fines, Jail Terms