Each morning like clockwork, a Federal Express truck pulls up to the fortress-like Federal Building in Laguna Niguel and deposits another shipment of amnesty applications from immigrants throughout the West.
Inside the cavernous Immigration and Naturalization Service regional processing center, dozens of clerks sort the files, match them with computer entries and place them in the 5.5 miles of shelves that line a large portion of the facility.
And there most of them remain--silent testimony to the huge backlog that continues to plague the operation.
Of the more than 600,000 applications filed in the INS Western Region so far, only about half have even reached the center, one of four in the country. Of these, only about 80,000 have been processed to completion.
40% Staff Shortage
Dozens of empty work stations throughout the processing facility attest to a 40% staff shortage.
Each day, only a trickle of the files, which began arriving shortly after the one-year amnesty program began last May, reach the desks of the center's adjudicators, the men and women who make the fateful final decisions of who may remain in the United States and who may not.
There the files come to life again.
One file traces a young man's life through a fraudulent marriage and the immigration court system. Color snapshots of a smiling bride and groom attest to a new marriage and a new life; letters from employers and friends to his good character, a house note and income tax records to the fruits of his hard work.
Another case reveals the cold letter of the law. A young man will be denied legal residence because he crossed the border into the United States with a tourist visa that expired on Jan. 1, 1982--one day too late to be eligible for amnesty. Under the law, only immigrants who have lived illegally in the United States since before Jan. 1, 1982 may qualify.
Such cases daily cross the desks of adjudicators such as 21-year-old Gabriela Becerra, a former Border Patrol secretary from El Centro, whose job is to determine whether the people reflected in paper files are worthy of ultimately becoming U.S. citizens.
Like most of her colleagues, Becerra regularly works 10- and 12-hour days, six days a week, in an attempt to deal with the backlog. Her assignment is to judge applicants' requests for waivers, required by those with strikes against them, such as having been deported or having received public assistance.
"Paper can tell so much about a person," Becerra said. "You can tell whether a person's a good guy or not. Some are very active in their communities, involved in schools and the PTA. Those you don't want to deny."
The young woman must weigh an applicant's previous INS record--which may include deportations, visa violations or smuggling charges--as well as physical disabilities or acceptance of public assistance, against such mitigating issues as the public interest and humanitarian concerns.
'He Has Rehabilitated'
In the case of two applicants seeking waivers for having committed marriage fraud, one appeared to satisfy Becerra's standards because "he has rehabilitated and is now a good citizen. . . . He has family ties here, a good-paying job, money in the bank and is in the process of buying a home."
But the other, Becerra said, "works at a car wash, so he has no public interest" justification, nor has he family ties or other mitigating circumstances.
Most of the center's 39 adjudicators come with government experience from other agencies or have transferred from jobs as INS inspectors and clerks. They receive about two weeks formal training and the rest on the job. Becerra, one of only two Spanish-speaking adjudicators, is also among the youngest.
Although her former Border Patrol friends tease her that they "catch" illegal immigrants and she "approves them," Becerra said, she "does everything within (her) power" to approve, rather than deny, applications.
99% Approval Rate
So far she has denied only one, which is reflective of the processing center's overall 99% approval rate. The rate is slightly higher than the approval rate at the 38 legalization offices across the region, where immigrants initially file applications. Examiners at these offices interview applicants and make initial recommendations.
Processing center Director Joseph Thomas said he believes that denials may increase as more marginal cases begin to turn up.
"We've been processing applications from the meticulous ones who've kept all their records in order and filed early," Thomas said. "Those still scratching to find old receipts and records to sustain their amnesty claims are probably still only thinking about filing."