More than 1,000 people showed up at the federal immigration amnesty office in El Monte two weeks ago, jamming into the cramped waiting area, lining up on the stairs and drifting into every square foot of open floor space. When the building manager shut down the elevator to keep late-comers from crowding in, some of them pelted the building with bottles.
"The nicest name they were shouting was 'liars,' " said Alma Vielma, a Catholic Charities supervisor who was there.
It was an example of the communication gaps that still trouble the 9-month-old federal amnesty program, which some illegal immigrants continue to look upon with considerable suspicion, even though more than 1 million of them have used it to apply for "legalization."
In this case, computers at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Regional Processing Facility in Laguna Niguel had suddenly spit out thousands of notices for applicants to come to the El Monte office for their temporary residency cards, without specifying a time to do so.
Showed Up Saturday
"What happened was that people who worked from Monday to Friday, not wanting to take time off from work, decided that the best time to pick up their cards was on Saturday," said Ernest Gustafson, director of the immigration service's Los Angeles District. "It wasn't just one person but hundreds."
But the incident, during which 679 of the cards were actually distributed by a staff of six beleaguered clerks as police dispersed the crowd outside, also showed the considerable work that remains to be done as the one-year program heads into its final 90 days. May 4 is the deadline for those who qualify to submit their applications.
Federal officials in the Los Angeles District, where more than 480,000 people have already applied for amnesty, are expecting between 250,000 and 300,000 more before the program shuts down.
"I'd say there's absolutely a zero chance of an extension of the deadline," said Gustafson. "Why put your hopes on something for which there's no climate in Washington?"
Many in the San Gabriel Valley are getting that message. After a marked drop-off in applications at the two offices in the region, new applicants are streaming in again, officials at the El Monte and Pomona offices report. These offices, along with legalization offices in Hollywood, Huntington Park and East Los Angeles, are the five busiest in the nation.
"The door is closing," said Mavis Salgado, chief legalization officer for the El Monte office, which has processed more than 38,000 applications for amnesty since the program began last May. The Pomona office has processed more than 34,000.
On peak days in El Monte last August, the office was processing more than 700 applications a day. But then business tapered off from October through the Christmas holidays. "Around Christmas we were getting a lot of 'no-shows,' people who had scheduled appointments but didn't come in," Salgado said.
But now the trend is strongly upward again as the people Salgado calls "minute men"--those who procrastinate until the last moment--are starting to come forward.
The office's waiting area is crowded again, with applicants cradling infants in their arms and toddlers wending aimlessly through the aisles. "There's no problem in waiting," said Nicolas Lopez, sitting there last Friday with his wife, four sons and a daughter for an appointment that was an hour and a half overdue. "It's the children who get impatient."
The same thing is happening in the Pomona office, where new applications have doubled in the past two weeks, as well as in the programs of the voluntary organizations that are helping to process applications. "All of a sudden there's a big boom," said Vielma of Catholic Charities, which has consolidated its six San Gabriel Valley offices into a single one in East Los Angeles. "It's like taxes. Most people don't file until April 14th or 15th."
But interviews with applicants showed that while there is a natural tendency to procrastinate, many people are being drawn by a pair of favorable regulatory changes that liberalized some standards for qualification.
Until last September, for example, the Mexican-born Lopez and his family would not have qualified for amnesty because of a series of short journeys they made to their home city of Leon, Mexico, returning to California with visitors' visas. The visas, obtained on the fraudulent claim that the Lopezes intended to visit the United States only for a short visit, had the effect of placing the family briefly on a legal footing.
Ironically, "legality" would have disqualified them, as the law was originally interpreted. The requirement was that applicants must have been continuously "illegal" since Jan. 1, 1982.
Wife Told of Trip