Nearly every weekday morning, as early as 1 a.m., a line begins to form at the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Westminster.
It wraps around the building by 8 a.m., when the doors open and a worker hands out numbers for the day's appointments.
On a recent morning, Azita Salam, a 20-year-old bank teller from Laguna Hills, had arrived at 7:30 a.m. to find that "people were sleeping here from the night before with pillows, chairs and blankets."
"They ran out of tickets and told me to come back another day," said Salam, an immigrant from Iran. "I came back and had to stand in line to get some forms. By the time I got the forms, they said they didn't have enough tickets that day and to come back still another day."
Lines are nothing new at the Westminster INS office, but they have gotten noticeably longer since Sept. 1, when the new federal immigration law required employers to demand proof of work authorization from their employees. Until that date, employers had been allowed to accept forms signed by workers attesting that they intended to apply for amnesty.
Westminster Office Is Special
The Westminster INS office, partly hidden behind another building that fronts on Magnolia Street, is the only INS office in Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties that handles legalization matters other than amnesty applications. Each day, three clerks help more than 300 people process documents that prove residency or citizenship, replace lost papers, extend immigrant visits and handle requests for political asylum.
Since Sept. 1, the volume of people seeking information and requesting the various immigration documents at both the Westminster and Los Angeles INS offices has tripled, INS district director Ernest Gustafson said.
He attributed the increase to a press conference that he and other INS officials held Aug. 27, at which they announced that there would be no extension of the Sept. 1 deadline, as some had apparently believed. The following day--a Friday--the Los Angeles immigration office served 2,300 people, almost four times its caseload on a normal day, Gustafson said. On Monday, Aug. 31, the office opened at 4:30 a.m. and served 3,100 people.
"The same thing happened in Westminster," Gustafson added.
Contributing to the problem in the Los Angeles and Westminster offices is the absence of 80-100 workers who have been detached to work exclusively on amnesty applications. New employees have not yet been hired to replace all of them. Another problem is that the Westminster office has no lines for incoming phone calls.
Michael Haik, 38, of Santa Ana said he tried to call for information about helping a friend petition for permanent residency but got only a recording that didn't explain the procedures at the Westminster office.
They Still Have to Come Back
When he went to the office, a clerk told him he had to return with his friend "but didn't tell me I needed the forms." When he returned with his friend at 7:45 a.m. to stand in line for an appointment, "I couldn't get a ticket because I had to fill out some forms." The two went to the forms line and got them.
"Now we have to come back next week to get a ticket to turn in the forms," Haik said.
Vidal Castillo, office supervisor, conceded that the lines are too long and the staff too small. Two more clerks are expected to be added by the end of the year, he said.
"Obviously, there's a need for more manpower and more offices, but that's not up to the Immigration Service," Castillo said. "That's up to the Congress to give us more money."
Still, Castillo maintained that everyone in line in the morning was given an appointment for that day.
"When we open the doors, we give everyone in line a ticket. We may tell them to come back at 1 p.m. for an afternoon interview, but we have been issuing them to everyone since Sept. 1," he said.
But some in line before the doors opened recently said this was their second or third try. The other times, they said, the office ran out of appointment numbers and turned them away.
Trinh Grant, a 25-year-old secretary from Orange petitioning for a re-entry permit to allow her mother-in-law to visit Vietnam, said she went to the INS office and got the form she needed after waiting in line. She returned with it the next day, standing in the morning line to get an appointment ticket. But she was too late. A worker told her to return another day.
"It's awful. About 100 people are waiting and two people are working," she said. "I've missed work the last three days."
Like Castillo, Gustafson blames inadequate funds for the crowding and waiting time: "I don't think anyone should have to wait for an answer to a question. I wish we could help people 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
But, he said: "It's impossible (to remedy the situation) unless people are allocated. We've added several extra people downtown. Everyone wants to replace their lost green cards, sometimes lost years ago, but needed now because of the sanctions."
Times staff writer Bob Schwartz contributed to this story.