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Immigration Amnesty : After a sputtering start, the legalization program in the San Gabriel Valley is : beginning to reach large numbers of people who are overcoming their fear of the INS.

August 13, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

When someone called out his name, Manuel Rios' wife and two daughters had to nudge him out of his seat. "What are you waiting for?" asked one daughter, stifling a laugh. Rios, a short, rumpled man with a look of good-natured bewilderment, rushed to the front desk, returning to the waiting area a moment later with a laminated identity card.

The other members of the family passed it around, as if it were a charm. They held it up to the light and examined the picture of Rios, an El Monte bakery worker.

Rios beamed. For the first time in the 10 years he has lived in the United States, he was "documented," he said. With the work authorization card just handed to him by an official at the El Monte Immigration and Naturalization Service Legalization Center, he could go to his job without fear that authorities might burst in and seize him as an undocumented alien.

"For years, I have saved my tax forms and receipts," he said. "But I never dreamed that there would be an amnesty like this."

When he gets his temporary residency card in a few months, Rios can even consider a long-delayed visit to his elderly father in a village in the state of Guanajuato, in central Mexico. " Si, voy a dar una vuelta por alla ," he said, leaning back in the seat, like someone behind the wheel of a brand-new luxury car. "I'll take a little trip down there."

There is no guarantee, of course. Rios' application still has to be reviewed by the INS Regional Processing Facility in Laguna Niguel, immigration officials pointed out. But Rios, armed with rent receipts, medical records and income tax forms, is confident that he will be among the majority who qualify.

After a sputtering start, the immigration amnesty program in the San Gabriel Valley is beginning to reach large numbers of people. The waiting rooms in the two legalization centers in the area are usually jammed with people these days--adults like Rios and his wife, Maria, nervously fingering bits of paper while their children blithely climb across the seats. Interviewers at both the El Monte and Pomona INS centers have been processing more than 250 applicants a day in recent weeks.

During the early days of the program, which began three months ago, immigration officials could count the numbers of applicants arriving each day on the fingers of one hand.

Now significant numbers are completing the process, officials say. Three weeks ago, both San Gabriel Valley centers handed out their first temporary residency cards under the amnesty program. By last week, as many as 30 people a day were coming in to each center to pick up the cards, which allow the holder to work and to travel into and out of the country. Eighteen months after an applicant receives his temporary card, he can apply for the much-desired green card or permanent residency authorization.

As of last week, the two centers had interviewed and issued work authorizations to more than 15,000 people. The Pomona office, among the three busiest offices in the INS Southwest Region, handled 9,160 of those. The region includes 36 legalization offices in California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam.

"I think there has to be a lot less anxiety than there was," said Robert Gilbert, chief legalization officer for the Pomona office, which boasts that it is the only center in the region advertising its presence with a 30-foot sign, on the front of its East Holt Avenue building. "Just about everybody walks out of here with an employment authorization card."

As with other centers in the region, the number of recommendations for denial of amnesty in the Pomona office has been running at less than 1%, Gilbert said. Even those people recommended for denial, though, are issued the work authorization permit, which is valid for six months. If their applications for temporary residency are denied, they face possible deportation.

The El Monte office, which was closed for 10 days in July because of a fire on another floor in the privately owned office building on Flair Drive, has interviewed 6,192.

"People are saying it's not as bad as they thought it would be," said Lupe Ochoa, chief legalization officer for the El Monte center. "Not only are they doing it themselves, but they're encouraging their compadres to come, too. They know that we're not arresting anyone."

Volunteer organizations, which pre-screen applicants and assist in filling out the four-page application, are working the kinks out of their operations, too. For example, Catholic Charities, which began operations in May with a single office in the San Gabriel Valley area, now has four offices, three in East Los Angeles and one in Pomona. Catholic Charities includes East Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley Diocese, which extends eastward to Pomona.

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