LONG BEACH — The only officially designated center for immigration amnesty here will be closed this week, forcing local applicants to seek help in Lynwood, Wilmington or elsewhere in the Los Angeles area.
But staff members at the Catholic Charities office, 2244 Long Beach Blvd., said they believe the shutdown is unjustified. Workers said they filled a special need by giving personal attention and seeking some of the toughest cases, even though they were not receiving as many applications as other centers.
"We've never adopted an assembly-line attitude," shift supervisor Andrew Echavarria said.
Jerome Orlando Torres, former chairman of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he is disappointed at the closure because "the need is very strong here in Long Beach."
Armando Vazquez-Ramos, executive director of Centro de la Raza/Pan American Community Center, said the closure of the Catholic center "will definitely be a loss because there will be that much less access" to services for illegal immigrants.
Vazquez-Ramos said his agency offers amnesty assistance, although without the designation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and at a higher cost than the $55 a person charged by Catholic Charities.
"The demand is most definitely in this community," he said.
The city's Latino population has been estimated at 75,000, which was 18.4% of the city population in 1986, based on reports from the state and a private consultant hired by the city. Vazquez-Ramos said that illegal immigrants comprise about 40% of the Latino population.
Asians comprise 12.6% of the city's population; many of them are refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. However, Cambodian community leader Nil Hul said that virtually all are legal immigrants because of their status as refugees from politically repressive regimes.
The Catholic Center's 15 workers in Long Beach have been ordered to report Monday to other work sites, Echavarria said. But he said a need still exists in Long Beach and that some potential applicants may hesitate to travel to other centers.
The office is one of six being closed by the Los Angeles Archdiocese's Catholic Charities, after a sharp drop-off in the number of new cases. Twelve sites operated by the agency will remain open and extend their hours.
The agency is the largest among volunteer organizations designated by the INS to process applications for the amnesty program that grants permanent residency to eligible illegal aliens. To be eligible, applicants must be able to prove that they have lived continuously in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982.
Linnea Dahlstrom, a Catholic Charities spokeswoman, said the Long Beach office was processing far fewer applications than other offices. There were 935 cases submitted to the INS by the Long Beach office, contrasted with 2,452 by the Wilmington branch, between July 18 and Oct. 31, she said.
If demand suddenly surges in Long Beach or elsewhere for amnesty services, Dahlstrom said case workers will be reassigned to handle the load. "Our bottom line is we're going to serve the people no matter what," she said.
Most Are in Churches
Case worker Mary Stallmo said the office on Long Beach Boulevard is one of the few Catholic Charities centers not associated with a Catholic church. The Wilmington office is at Holy Family Catholic Church, 1220 N. Sanford St., and the Lynwood office is at St. Emydius church, 10900 California Ave.
"I'm concerned about the people who will not go to the churches," Stallmo said. "They are afraid someone is going to ask them (if they are) Catholic."
Some Latinos are afraid to venture out of their own neighborhoods or into other barrios, dissuading them from making the trip to other sites to sign up for immigration amnesty.
Dahlstrom said, however, that having the centers within Catholic churches encourages applicants.
"We're finding such a large portion of our clientele is Hispanic and historically, Hispanics are Catholic," she said. "They feel safe coming to the church."