For a few charmed months, the old red mail box that federal immigration officials installed in Room 1001 in their downtown Los Angeles office worked without a hitch.
The sudden appearance of the metal drop box in the bustling Immigration and Naturalization Service reception room last May seemed the perfect solution to complaints by lawyers about having to confront long lines and harried examiners every day when they showed up to hand in citizenship applications and other filings.
With the new box, attorneys were able to bypass the examiners and receive prompt answers and appointments for their clients. "I figured it was too good to be true," recalled Ron Tasoff, an immigration lawyer.
It was. By last October, many of Tasoff's drop box cases--and those of other immigration attorneys--had disappeared into bureaucratic limbo, devoured by what Tasoff calls "the black hole of Room 1001." Filings that once took a week to answer are now taking as long as three months to surface--if they are answered at all--and many wary lawyers have now given up on using Room 1001's mail box.
While delays and logistical problems have become familiar concerns within the INS' highly publicized national amnesty program over the last eight months, attorneys and others who work with immigrants said that similar backlogs and snafus among regular immigration cases have become pervasive since last May in the Los Angeles district and elsewhere in the INS' Western region.
For instance, before the amnesty program began, local INS efforts to streamline citizenship applications had cut the waiting period for processing to as little as a year. But immigration lawyers now say that clients are being told that they may have to wait up to 2 1/2 years for interviews.
Immigration lawyers and even some government officials have blamed the delays on the amnesty program, which they said siphoned off the most experienced examiners and officials who had been working on traditional immigration cases. The manpower shortages have been filled slowly, attorneys complained, and when they are, newly hired replacements cause more errors and snags because of their lack of seasoning.
Lost Some Small Gains
Regional INS officials, who before the start of the legalization program last May had finally begun to make inroads into streamlining a program that had been plagued for years with long lines and delays, admitted that the personnel shortages have cost them many of the small gains they had made.
"Right now we're doing 10 ton of work with a five-ton truck," said Ernest Gustafson, the INS Los Angeles district director. "We're hoping the public will be patient until the needed resources are allocated."
Five nights a week, immigrants flock to the federal building in downtown Los Angeles, bringing along sleeping bags, televisions and radios, to guarantee a spot in line the next morning. When the doors open, those who are lucky enough to get an appointment number flood into Room 1001, a massive chamber divided by desks and partitions. There, they crowd benches and chairs with children and friends, waiting for hours and wondering whether their papers are in order or whether they will have to return and face the lines another night.
"It's like a zoo," said Tina Ramirez, a secretary who recently spent half a day there with a friend from Mexico. Like many others, she will have to return for another appointment.
Critical of Washington
Many attorneys credit local INS officials with working hard to overcome their logistical problems. They criticize Congress and high-ranking INS officials in Washington for not adequately funding the Western region office, which alone has accounted for more than 58% of the nation's amnesty filings.
But some lawyers, frustrated over the long delays, have filed lawsuits against the agency to force an end to the confusion. In one legal action, attorneys are asking a federal judge to appoint an independent court master to oversee the agency's compliance.
"We have paper gridlock down there (at the INS downtown office)," said James R. Gotcher, one of three attorneys who sued the INS on behalf of 49 immigrants in federal district court last October. "They are using a horse-and-buggy system in the space age."
Gotcher tells of clients who have gone without responses from the INS for more than a year while waiting for "simple answers or a single document." In other cases, he alleges, files have been lost repeatedly.
As a result, attorneys said, delays that were barely tolerable in the past have now become intolerable.
Program Bogs Down