WASHINGTON — After touring a center that will handle legal residency applications, the Reagan Administration's chief immigration official on Monday promised that his agency will handle fairly the cases of millions of illegal aliens who can seek legal status starting today under the new immigration law.
"A lot of hard work has gone into this," Alan C. Nelson, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told reporters. "We think the system is good."
Joining Nelson on the tour simulating an illegal immigrant's journey through the system were two of the new law's prime architects, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R.-Wyo.) and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), who both praised INS's handling of the amnesty program. The agency conformed to "the spirit and need of the bill," Mazzoli said.
Simpson, brushing aside critics who say that the program is neither fair nor well organized, stressed several times that it runs for an entire year and that there will be plenty of time to iron out any problems.
During that period, the INS will accept applications from illegal immigrants who have lived in this country continuously, except for brief absences, since before Jan. 1, 1982. A separate program begins on June 1 for farm workers who were employed in the United States for at least 90 days during the period ending May 1, 1986.
Some 'Minor Glitches'
Nelson, promising that the network of 107 INS centers nationwide will be "fair and reasonable, and certainly flexible," pronounced it in good health, except for a few "minor glitches."
Such reassurances starkly contrast with assessments from many church and social service agencies around the nation that have been counseling aliens. Many have warned repeatedly that they do not have the materials, staff or money to handle the onslaught of interested immigrants. And if they are not ready, the system likely is not ready either because the INS is relying on the private groups to screen and advise people before sending them on to the INS centers.
Nevertheless, the visitors to the center in the Washington suburb of Arlington, which is expected to handle 150 applications daily from Virginia and the nation's capital, seemed pleased.
Like fathers examining their newborns, the two members of Congress strode through the one-story building, examining forms and equipment and chatting with employees and local officials.
"We've been through the hoops," said Simpson, recalling the years of contentious congressional debate that culminated in the legislation's passage last October. "Legalization was not a popular thing."
Equipped to Handle 4 Million
Now, he said, the INS centers will make sure that any doubts on whether a person is qualified for legal status "will be resolved in favor of the applicant."
The center, decorated with patriotic red, white and blue bunting and a foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, contains more than 500 chairs and has signs with messages in Spanish and English. Although the INS's four-page application is printed only in English, several staff members are bilingual, and applicants are being advised to bring interpreters.
The INS has said that it is equipped to handle 4 million applicants, but like officials in other offices around the country, no one here could predict how many people will show up in the first weeks.
Because illegal immigrants traditionally have distrusted the INS, the numbers may be small initially, said Shirley Littlejohn, an assistant adjudicator and 12-year veteran of the INS. "Some people may think they'll get locked up," she said, "but it's not that way."
Maria Alvarado, a form distributor who will be the first staff member an immigrant meets when he walks into the office, said that aliens should not fear the agency because "we're really trying to be as diplomatic and professional as we can."
The pressure on the INS to build trust in illegal immigrants is pitted against the need to ensure that applications are examined carefully to prevent fraud.
Brenda Goodwin, one of six adjudicators who examine applications, said that even if long lines form, "I won't feel pressured to rush through the forms. I will handle each one individually and take my time."