Although she has never met him, Isabel Velasquez of Canoga Park will never forget his name: el senor Ernest Gustafson.
"I am so grateful to Mr. Ernest Gustafson," she said, reciting the syllables in Spanish with something very close to reverence. "He answered our prayers."
Gustafson is Los Angeles district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. What he did was grant her a 30-day extension of a court order that would have forced her and her three young sons to return to their native Colombia by last week.
He said it is the first such case he knows of in Los Angeles in which a family was almost separated because one member is qualified for amnesty and others are not.
Did Not Apply
Velasquez's husband, Mario, had qualified for legalization under the 1986 immigration law, while she and her children, who had arrived at a later date, had not applied.
The so-called "family unity" issue has been controversial since Congress passed the sweeping immigration law. Of 360,000 amnesty applications in the western regions, 1,800 are cases in which one family member appears to qualify, while others do not, officials said. Critics, including leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, have complained that the way the law is written, many potential applicants are afraid to apply for amnesty for fear not all family members will qualify.
Congress did not deal explicitly with the issue in the law, and the INS is now developing guidelines as to exactly what immigration officials should do in such cases. It is not known whether Velasquez and her children will be allowed to remain in the United States under the new guidelines.
Gustafson said he knows of no other case--and there are 260,000 in the seven-county Los Angeles district alone--in which a family member of an amnesty applicant was about to be removed from the country.
"Not one person has been removed from this district who has a family member who qualifies for amnesty," Gustafson said. "As far as I know, this case is unique."
He said he had told his staff that no one who has a family member applying for amnesty should be moved out of the country until the national guidelines are issued.
But Velasquez and her children apparently slipped through the cracks.
They found their way to his door not through INS channels but through Lupita Diaz, a counselor at a county-funded social service center in the San Fernando Valley called Centro de Amistad (Center of Friendship).
"Mrs. Velasquez was crying when she came in a few months ago," Diaz recalled. "She was desperate. She had been calling everywhere by herself and didn't know what to do."
Mario Velasquez, a mechanic, had come to the United States in 1981 and sent for his wife and three sons in December, 1982. They were arrested at the border. He qualified for amnesty under the cutoff date of Jan. 1, 1982. His family, Isabel; Alex, 11; Wilson, 8, and Oscar, 7, did not. They were ordered to leave the country by Sept. 3.
"I went to the center because I didn't know what else to do," Isabel Velasquez said. "Time was passing and Sept. 3 was approaching. I thought, 'My God! What are we going to do?' My sons are so young. They could not tolerate being again without their father."
Getting Put on Hold
Diaz began making calls to the kind of public service agencies that usually help people like Velasquez. She called Catholic Charities, which has helped tens of thousands of people file amnesty claims. She called a variety of public-interest immigration centers, which handle individual cases and class-action suits.
"I got put on hold, I got transferred, I got referred to someone else and finally the someone else always told me nothing could be done, that it was too late because a court order had been issued," Diaz said.
"I almost gave up. But Mrs. Velasquez wasn't Mexican--it wasn't like she could go to Tijuana and somehow she and her children could see Mr. Velasquez again. This was Colombia--South America. Besides, they have lived here five years now. They speak English. They are almost Americans."
Diaz worked on. With Velasquez and her children in tow, she visited the Federal Building downtown to talk to deportation authorities two weeks ago.
"They told me it was a felony if she didn't leave the country, and that there was absolutely nothing that could be done," she said.
Finally, a week before the deadline, she called the office of the district director.
'Don't Hang Up'
"Please don't hang up on me," she said she blurted as a secretary was about to refer her back to deportation authorities. "Just give me five minutes."
Diaz said she called Gustafson because he was No. 1.
"I tried not to bother him, but everyone else said no," she said, "so I had no choice."
What she did not realize was that under immigration law, district directors are granted broad discretionary authority to intervene in the often-complex immigration cases.
Gustafson granted her a 30-day extension, which, he said, he will probably extend again if the national guidelines have not yet been issued. An INS spokesman in Washington said the guidelines are expected to be handed down soon, but said no date has yet been set.
As for the Velasquez family?
"I'm hoping, I'm praying, that when the 30 more days are over, there will be another answer to my prayers," Isabel Velasquez said.