More illegal aliens applying for amnesty than initially estimated face the separation of family members, according to a survey conducted in Los Angeles County by Catholic clergy lobbying for liberalization of the program.
Of the nearly 3,000 families that participated in the church survey, one-third said they had not applied for amnesty. Of the two-thirds who have taken steps toward applying, 44% said they have one or more family members who are ineligible for legalization. Of those who had not applied, 48% said they had relatives who would not qualify.
Several months ago, church officials who have been pressing for a change in the rules estimated that 30% of amnesty applicants might face some family separation.
Federal officials, who joined the religious leaders at an unusual press conference Tuesday, promised to take steps to see that families are not separated.
Acknowledging that the survey indicates a great effect on families, Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he would relay the information to U.S. Commissioner Alan Nelson for review. It was Nelson who challenged the religious leaders at a meeting in Los Angeles last summer to document whether a serious problem existed, members of the group said.
In exchange for Ezell's cooperation, the religious leaders pledged their cooperation in encouraging their parishioners to apply for the program. The joint press conference was termed "historical" by participants, who noted that the officials and the religious leaders have often been at odds over the law and its implementation.
Ezell conceded that the issue "needs a little more clarification," but cautioned that Congress' intent in enacting the law "was never to legalize every alien" in the country. Under the landmark immigration law, illegal aliens who have lived in this country before January, 1982, are eligible for amnesty.
"Morally, we cannot stand by and see families broken up and destroyed because of the fear of deportation," said Father William Jansen, a leader in the South-Central Organizing Committee, one of three church-based sister organizations in Los Angeles that conducted the survey of 14 parishes. Questionnaires were distributed at Masses during the last four months.
Family members, including spouses and children, must qualify individually. In one concession, the INS in October announced a change in policy allowing the children of eligible parents to remain in the country.
Los Angeles INS District Director Ernest Gustafson said that "there has not been a single individual who has filed who has had a non-qualifying family member removed from the country." Even in those cases where a non-qualifying family member has been apprehended, outside the amnesty process, and ordered deported, officials have used their administrative discretion to allow the person to remain in the country.
Moreover, Gustafson said that the INS will "continue to extend the time (that such people may remain) until Congress deals with the problem."