For 21 years, Gene Pyeatt wore a gun on his hip for the U.S. Border Patrol and collared illegal aliens who tried to sneak across the border into Texas.
On Tuesday, he will begin helping them become legal residents of the United States.
"Rightfully so," says Pyeatt, head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's new legalization office in Anaheim. "We were upholding what was the law back then, and we're still doing what the law states. If it's the law, I can abide by that."
Pyeatt, 64, had retired in 1977 after 33 years with the INS--12 in investigations and internal affairs following his stint along the border. About a year ago, he got a letter from his former employer asking him to return to work if the immigration reform bill that had been bandied about in Congress for years actually passed.
The bill became law last autumn, and Pyeatt came out of retirement to manage one of three legalization offices the INS is opening in Orange County.
Millions Expected to Apply
Under the law, called the Immigration Reform and Control Act, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of illegal aliens who have either lived in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982, or who worked at least 90 days in agriculture between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986, are expected to apply for amnesty and obtain legal status as temporary residents. Later, they may apply for permanent resident status and eventually for citizenship.
The legalization offices will begin accepting applications Tuesday.
Pyeatt says he didn't need to come back to work--he was perfectly happy traveling around the United States and Europe with his wife.
"But they (the INS) needed us, and I'm enthused about being part of this," said Pyeatt, who lives in Anaheim. "It's an historic kind of event, something that's never happened before. . . . The kids (his staff) are anxious to get started and get these people back into the mainstream."
Last week, some of Pyeatt's staff huddled around new computers, familiarizing themselves with the programs, while others studied notebooks full of rules and regulations, like students cramming for a test. High-speed drills whirred as moving men set up modular partitions and unpacked box after box of unassembled chairs.
Although they will not all be on board Tuesday, 28 people eventually will work in the Anaheim office, which expects to be able to interview 250 applicants a day, Pyeatt said. One of the new INS employees is Stanley Jordan, a Long Beach resident who left a job with the Internal Revenue Service a few years ago for the private sector, but now wants to remain in the civil service "until it's time to retire," he said.
"I've got my foot in the door," said Jordan, confident that he will find another post when his job terminates shortly after the legalization program ends a year from now. "I think it's a privilege (to work in the amnesty program). . . . It's a part of Americana."
Will Interview Applicants
As a legalization adjudicator, Jordan will have the important task of interviewing applicants and making a preliminary recommendation. The files then will be sent to the INS regional processing center in Laguna Niguel, where officials will approve or reject the applications. That office will not open for at least another week.
The managers of Orange County's other two legalization offices--George Newland in Santa Ana and Ed Egan in Buena Park--also are retired Border Patrol officers.
Like Pyeatt, they say they have no qualms about welcoming into their offices the people they once would have arrested.
"Switching over is no problem at all--this is what Congress mandated," said Newland, standing in his still unfurnished office on South Ritchey Street last week. Through the double glass doors, not 40 yards away, a host of farm workers, some of them illegal aliens, could be seen plucking strawberries and running up and down the rows to unload their trays and get back to work.
Inside, Newland's deputy, Dorita M. Kimble, was schooling some of the office's new employees on the fine points of the complex law.
"If they work only one hour one day because it rained, that's OK, we'll give them credit for the whole day," said Kimble, explaining how to judge an agricultural worker's claim of 90 days. "But if he has one hour for 90 days, we're gonna look at that a little closer."
The staff would have to learn "how many bushels of this and baskets of that" equals an hour of work to determine if fruit pickers had actually worked enough days to qualify, said Kimble, an 11-year INS employee with the voice and demeanor of a good-natured drill sergeant.
'Our Attitude is Amnesty'
Kimble, who commutes to the Santa Ana office daily from Rialto in San Bernardino County, said the most striking difference between her old job as an INS examiner and her new one as a legalization officer is the lack of "a close relationship with enforcement. Our attitude is amnesty. . . . There are silent groups out there, and we are trying to get them to say, 'Hello, here I am.' "