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Worries and Rumors About Amnesty Intensify Stress Among Immigrants

June 21, 1987|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

All through the day, Eugenia Arevallo can think of nothing but la ley .

On the way to work, she listens as friends tell her their rumors and sad tales, then she tells her own. At home, she eats constantly to put thoughts of the nation's new immigration law out of her mind.

Her husband, Justino, is calmer on the surface. But he smokes more now and is tempted more frequently to leave their rented house in Boyle Heights to brace himself with a shot of whiskey at neighborhood bars. He returned recently from a visit to the doctor with an orange vial of pills, prescribed to soothe his nerves. One night, Eugenia awoke to see him crouched in the darkness, pounding the floor and sobbing.

"Sometimes we pray for help," she said. "God willing, everything will work out and we will be allowed to stay here."

In Los Angeles' sprawling community of illegal aliens, life has always been edged with fear and stress. Dogged by the constant fear of discovery by bosses and government officials and the threat of arrest and deportation by immigration agents, the region's estimated 1 million indocumentados have endured by conducting their lives with caution.

Now, caution is no longer enough. The 6-week-old amnesty program has raised new fears about the future, confronting many undocumented aliens with painful decisions about coming out into the open and many others with deadlines that will force them to either return to their homelands or burrow deeper into the immigrant underground.

Those who work with these immigrants, in schools, in mental health clinics, in immigration offices, say these fears are increasingly emerging in classic symptoms of stress.

Their anxieties show up in impressionistic images: Korean immigrants hesitating at the door of a Wilshire District legalization center, afraid to enter and ask for application forms; troubled Salvadorans losing sleep over their future and reliving their border crossings in nightmares; illegal aliens from Mexico slacking off on assembly line jobs, girding for the latest rumors of imminent mass raids by immigration agents.

Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and private groups working with illegal aliens worry that along with other factors, these new fears, realistic or unfounded, have impeded the early success of the new law, contributing to the low turnout of applicants in the early weeks of the program.

"I have a difficult time comprehending it, but I think we have to acknowledge that it's been a problem," said William King, the INS' western regional director for immigration reform. "We're trying to come up with as many ways as we can to eliminate these fears."

That will not be an easy task in a multiethnic immigrant community where suspicion of the agency's motives runs deep, stoked by rumors and conflicting information.

"This law has put an entire community of people on edge," said Dr. Robert Desdin, supervisor of adult outpatient care at El Centro Community Mental Health Center in East Los Angeles. "We see the ones who are troubled the most. But when they show the kind of increases in stress that we've been noticing lately, it has to be affecting the community at large."

There are no statistics to quantify that kind of communal strain. But many who work with illegal aliens insist that the disappointing first-month national turnout--about 62,000 amnesty applications have been returned from among 900,000 forms that were handed out--hint at the depths of those fears.

"Those are alarming figures," said Ira Bank, a lawyer who specializes in immigration cases. "It would seem to me that people should be rushing to get into this program."

Victor and Maria, a Mexican immigrant couple who live in El Monte, showed up at a nearby INS legalization office to pick up application forms just two weeks after the amnesty program started in May. But since then, the papers have sat untouched in a cardboard shoe box.

Victor, 34, has lived in Los Angeles since 1978, working in a factory that produces fans and electrical fixtures. He would appear to qualify under the amnesty law, which provides that illegal aliens who arrived before 1982 are eligible for citizenship. So would his wife, who came in 1981. But she returned to Mexico twice since then, leading to worries that she could be disqualified for leaving the country during her stay. The law allows only "brief and casual" departures.

They are unmoved by INS assurances that non-eligible relatives would not be deported while other family members apply for amnesty. Victor was caught and sent back several times by Border Patrol officers near Tijuana before he came over for good in 1978. Since then, he has always been watchful for INS raids at his factory, his pulse throbbing whenever he notices strange Anglos in the vicinity.

Unsure about how to proceed, Victor and Maria will do nothing until they are confident that they can apply without fear of separation.

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