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Worried Applicants : Amnesty--Pioneering First Wave

SEEKING AMNESTY: One family's hopes and fears as they seek legalization under the immigration law. Second in an occasional series.

September 01, 1987|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer

They spoke about laws and tragedy and skeletons found in the desert. The old-timers speak a good deal about such things these days.

When they remembered the 18 men who died in July in the locked boxcar near El Paso, they wondered.

"Why do they come, seeing the way things are now?" one of the men asked. They all agreed that the new immigration law is making it harder to find work.

But Antonio Carrillo knew why. "When you're over there and see yourself corralled, when you see your children go hungry, you look all around for a way out and there is none," Carrillo said. "Then, you remember the United States."

Reminiscences and Visions

Carrillo, 57, of Pomona, has lived and worked in the United States most of his adult life as an illegal alien, and in recent months has earned a living by scavenging for cardboard. He and a group of friends were spending a relaxed Sunday in Azusa recently remembering their own hazardous trips and contemplating their future under the new law.

Carrillo, whose father and uncles began traveling northward from their hometown in the Mexican state of Zacatecas before he was born, recalled his father's stories about men's skeletons he discovered on his treks across the desert.

Now they're dying in locked boxcars.

The men debated whether the law will stop people from coming. And they wondered how many of those already here will be allowed to stay under the law's amnesty. For Carrillo, this is an immediate and pressing concern.

Carrillo's San Gabriel Valley family is part of the first small wave of immigrants to take the risk of applying for amnesty. After months of worry and preparations, Carrillo, two of his children and a few other relatives have received six-month work permits while awaiting final decisions on their amnesty petitions.

Some in the family are guardedly optimistic about their chances, but most remain uncertain. And they are still worried about family members with more problematic cases who have yet to file applications.

While the law provides the only hope the family has of attaining legal U.S. residency, the unprecedented opportunity has not come cheaply.

The law offers U.S. residency to aliens who can prove they have lived in the United States continuously since Jan. 1, 1982, and who meet other requirements.

Despite public assurances from immigration officials that only about 2% of the amnesty applications filed so far have been recommended for denial, the Carrillos are not celebrating yet.

Since the law was enacted last November, the Carrillos, like other immigrants unfamiliar with the English language and American bureaucracy, have struggled to find their way through the red tape created by the law.

Most in the family have sought help from what has become a mushrooming amnesty industry: immigration lawyers, legalization assistance centers, physicians and small photographic shops offering services to help meet application requirements.

Some have spent days tracking down old employers for letters verifying when they worked, old tax accountants for copies of their returns. They've missed precious days from their jobs to keep appointments with lawyers and immigration officials.

They have also had to scrimp from already tight budgets to pay up to $1,700 per family in legal fees. This is in addition to the $420 per family in government fees and the cost of required medical exams, photographs and fingerprints.

And there have been sleepless nights spent worrying:

Would the few welfare checks Carrillo's daughter received during a brief marital separation disqualify her from amnesty?

Would Carrillo's wife, Estefana, who has seldom paid a bill in her own name, be able to document her years in the United States?

Will a 10-year medical disability, a mental illness or an emergency trip to Mexico disqualify other relatives? What if some family members are allowed to stay and others are forced to leave?

Those questions arise from ambiguities in the complex law and what critics regard as overly restrictive regulations implementing it. While the law disqualifies anyone considered a "public charge," it is not clear, for instance, whether that automatically applies to anyone who has ever received welfare benefits, disability payments or treatment for a mental disorder.

Critics blame the restrictions and confusion for the slow start of the program. So far, only 300,000 applications have been filed in the Western region. Immigration officials initially predicted that the one-year program would draw 2.1 million applicants in the West, more than half of the total expected across the country.

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