With less than three months left for many illegal aliens to apply for legal status, a coalition of San Diego community groups charged Friday that U.S. immigration authorities have failed their mandate to inform the public adequately about amnesty.
The result is that untold thousands of undocumented workers nationwide--including many in San Diego County--will likely miss the "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to apply for legal status under the terms of the 15-month-old immigration law, the coalition said.
"We believe it's likely that many people who are eligible for legalization will not apply," said Carol Rogoff Hallstrom, chairwoman of the San Diego Immigration Law Coalition representing 21 community and legal groups. "They will remain in the shadow of the law."
At a San Diego news conference, the coalition called on the U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service to extend the May 4 deadline for amnesty applications, largely because of the agency's purported failure to inform prospective applicants. Many others nationwide have called for a similar extension, but such proposals face an uncertain future in Congress. The INS opposes the extension as unnecessary.
Critical of Outreach Program
Hallstrom and others were highly critical of the INS' multimillion-dollar "outreach" program, which was mandated by Congress and designed to publicize amnesty.
"Even at this late date, it is apparent that many people are not getting the word," said Carl Poirot, executive director of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, which has worked with amnesty applicants countywide.
Added Hallstrom: "We have not seen a sustained, highly visible outreach campaign."
Other factors--such as the INS' failure to address the law's potential to split up families--have also dissuaded some people from applying for amnesty, the coalition charged.
The coalition, which said it had contacted the office of Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., called for a congressional investigation into the INS' outreach effort. A spokeswoman for Cranston in Washington said the senator had not yet received the request.
Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington, said the agency would welcome such an inquiry. "We're certainly open to any congressional review of how the money was used in the program."
$13 Million in Funds
Austin defended the outreach program, which he said had amounted to $7 million so far and would be expanded in the final weeks before the application deadline. The INS soon will launch a national campaign of radio and television advertisements titled "Don't Get Left Out," designed to encourage prospective amnesty candidates to submit their applications. All told, Austin said, some $13 million had been allocated to publicize amnesty and other aspects of the immigration law.
"We challenge anybody to produce any significant numbers of people who are not aware of it (amnesty), and we'll do something about it," Austin said.
But the San Diego community groups charged, for instance, that the INS had not advertised sufficiently in the Spanish-language media and other arenas within the undocumented community. The coalition maintained that it has made suggestions to INS officials in San Diego for additional publicity through the ethnic press, schools, churches and other community mediums, but INS officials appeared uninterested.
James Turnage, INS district director in San Diego, declined to comment on the matter.
The 1-year application period for most illegal aliens began last May 5.
Despite some projections that as many as 3.9 million illegal aliens may apply for amnesty, it now appears likely that fewer than 2 million will apply nationwide. In San Diego and Imperial counties, the INS expects some 52,000 applications. The community groups cited state figures indicating that as many as 84,000 people may actually be eligible for amnesty in the two counties.
Under the amnesty program, undocumented immigrants who have been living in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982, may qualify for legal status. In addition, agricultural laborers may qualify if they performed at least 90 days of field work during a recent 1-year period. Farm workers have until Dec. 1 to apply for legal status.