Years of impassioned debate over immigration reform and months of tedious planning to implement it have been translated into the details of desks, chairs, computers and new employees who will begin Tuesday the massive task of granting amnesty to as many as 4 million illegal aliens.
At stake are both clerical and philosophical questions. Can the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service handle the expected crush? And can it do so fairly? The agency says it can, but many critics predict chaos.
"Contrary to what you may have heard from those who fought immigration reform and would like to see it fail, INS is well prepared," INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson declared at a Washington press conference last week. "There will be some problems; I am convinced they will be few."
Critics like Peter Schey, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Center for Immigrants' Rights Inc., charge that the agency has placed too heavy a burden on voluntary organizations that are expected to help illegal aliens prepare applications and that the agency still will be unable to handle its part of the job.
"INS has clearly dropped back and punted," Schey said. "INS cannot handle the ordinary traffic of (immigration) applications in any reasonable manner, so it's hard to imagine how they'll handle the crunch of legalization."
In any case, the preparations have been considerable.
In seven hectic months, the INS has created a nationwide system of 107 legalization offices linked to a single data entry center in Kentucky, a U.S. Department of Justice computer in Texas and four regional processing facilities. The legalization offices, according to government figures, have been staffed with nearly 2,000 employees and provided with 25,000 seats for people waiting, 697 desk-top computers, 1.4 miles of counters and 44 million blank forms.
The INS has budgeted $125 million for the amnesty program in the current fiscal year and $144 million for next year. Congress has not yet appropriated money for the program, however, and the agency is spending funds originally budgeted for its regular operations, according to officials who insist they will have enough money to carry out the program.
Central to the immigration service's plans--especially in the key Los Angeles district, which is expected to handle up to one-third of all applications in the country--is a procedure by which applicants are requested to either mail in their forms or submit them through designated voluntary agencies.
Illegal aliens also can pick up or drop off applications at amnesty offices, but there is little else they can do there without appointments. Officials have said that legalization centers in the Los Angeles area will provide only limited advice to applicants. Interviews will be conducted only by appointment. The centers began passing out application forms last week and distributed about 58,000 of them.
Under the main legalization program, aliens must show that they have lived in the United States in illegal status since before Jan. 1, 1982. They must apply during the one-year period that begins Tuesday. Illegal aliens apprehended and released by the INS since the law was signed have only 30 days to apply.
Applicants for a separate farm workers program can apply beginning June 1.
The procedure encompasses layers of backup and review that INS officials say will help the agency maintain equal standards across the country--even though inexperienced employees will perform much of the evaluation work.
When applications come into legalization offices, they first will be processed on computers that will print out letters with interview appointments and temporary work authorization cards good until the date of the interview, officials said.
Work authorization is important because on June 1 enforcement begins of sanctions prohibiting employers from knowingly hiring illegal aliens not already on the job as of Nov. 6, 1986.
The law provides for the INS to give applicants temporary work authorization when they apply for amnesty, so this could encourage large numbers of people to apply during the initial weeks of the program.
But the agency has taken some of the pressure off by establishing rules allowing illegal aliens to receive work authorization through Sept. 1 by simply stating to a potential employer that they believe they qualify for amnesty and intend to apply for it.
Los Angeles District INS Director Ernest Gustafson said all these decisions together have laid the basis for a smooth opening of the legalization effort at INS offices in his seven-county area, which agency officials have predicted may handle 1.2 million applications or more.
'Can Control the Flow'
"Your flow (of applicants to be interviewed) is not going to be that great on May 5," Gustafson said. "And we can control the flow."
Los Angeles district offices, however, are still not quite fully staffed, and more glaring problems have arisen elsewhere in the country.