WASHINGTON — The nation's top immigration official Wednesday denounced efforts to extend the law that provides legal residency to some illegal aliens, saying an extension would be costly, confusing and merely an incentive for "procrastinators."
In the Reagan Administration's strongest criticism to date of the extension efforts, Alan C. Nelson, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, declared that extending the one-year legalization program beyond its May 4, 1988, deadline would pose a "major danger" to its success.
Nelson said an extension would "cause qualified applicants to become confused" or to "further delay making applications. It will only give the procrastinators more time and spread the same number of applications over a longer period." Thus, he said, the program would cost more, "something the taxpayers may be reluctant to allow."
Reason for Extension
Critics of the program have argued that a year is not enough time to attract a substantial number of illegal aliens, and last month legislation to extend the program by one year was introduced in the House. Estimates of the number of aliens who are eligible vary to as high as 5 million. The INS has set a target of 2 million applicants.
Nelson's comments, made at a news conference, set off a barrage of protest from supporters of the extension efforts.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced the legislation on Dec. 18, accused the INS of a "slow start-up" in the program and said his legislation would be the "minimal way to ensure" that every eligible person gets legal status.
Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza called Nelson's remarks a "defensive, knee-jerk reaction," adding that many people failed to apply earlier because they did not qualify until the INS changed some of its regulations.
Berman Backs Legislation
"I think the commissioner is totally wrong on this," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a supporter of the extension legislation. "Without this legislation we would be left with a large group of people who are vulnerable to exploitation."
Officials in the Western Region of the INS--where about 750,000 applications or nearly 60% of applications nationwide have been received--also said Wednesday that they oppose the proposed extension.
INS officials have "done everything we can" to attract applicants, regional commissioner Harold Ezell said at a press conference on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He said officials have used public announcements to keep immigrants up to date on the changing program and that the Justice Group, a public relations firm under contract with the federal agency, has conducted "an extensive outreach program" through the ethnic media.
"There are still folks out there who could qualify" but are not applying, Ezell said. And he said it now is "up to the community" to generate interest and increase the volume of applications.
Qualifying for Residency
Under the program, people who have lived illegally and continuously in the United States since before 1982 may qualify for legal residency. The INS reported Wednesday that, by the end of last year, 909,277 aliens had applied and that another 238,780 farm workers had applied under a separate program.
Mark Everson, associate INS commissioner, said 303,758 applicants had been approved for legal status under the main program, while 26,768 farm-worker applicants had been approved.
He denied that the figures mean the applications are moving too slowly through the system and said processing time ranges from "a couple of months" to longer than six months, depending on the difficulty in checking applicants' information.
The farm-worker program is scheduled to run for 18 months, six months longer than the main program. Linda Wong of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said this "is the most compelling reason" to pass the extension legislation on the main program.
Few Asians Apply
Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said the extension is especially critical for Asian immigrants, who have applied in very small numbers. He said only 40,000 have applied from an estimated nationwide total of 400,000 illegal aliens.
At his news conference, Nelson also announced a plan to make "random audits" of employers to determine if they are violating the law by knowingly hiring illegal aliens. So far, the INS has collected $14,000 in fines levied against employers.
Beginning in February, INS regional offices will compile lists of employers, and agency inspectors will visit the work sites after giving the employers a three-day notice.
The plan will operate in addition to current employer visits, which are designed to educate employers about the new law. The INS has made 459,620 such visits, issuing 983 warnings and serving 22 notices of its intention to fine employers.
The agency reported that the number of border apprehensions continued to drop at the end of last year, totaling 105,973 for November and December. During the same period a year earlier the number was 172,983.
"The continuing decline is a clear indication that the law is working as it was intended," Nelson said, "with aliens being discouraged from attempting illegal entry by the knowledge that it is more difficult to find work in this country."