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Amnesty: It's a Beginning

February 16, 1988

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has won praise for its efforts to implement the amnesty provisions of the new immigration law, inspiring hope that it will not prove necessary to extend the May 4 deadline written into the legislation. But that option should be kept open by Congress in the weeks ahead.

A new study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has concluded that enrollment in the amnesty program is likely to fall below expectations. There are administrative steps that the immigration service can take, however, that may overcome the disappointing response.

Within Congress itself there is a recognition that the fault for the unexpectedly low response lies both with Congress, which did not adopt supplementary funding for the program until two months after it was inaugurated, and with the immigration service, which was slow in implementing an education and information program to reach eligible persons.

Some of the fears that restrained applicants may now have been overcome. The immigration service has made clear that applications will be treated with absolute confidentiality; those who do not qualify will not be targeted for deportation. Furthermore, assurances have been given that children of those qualifying will be allowed to stay with the qualifying family member or members, limiting the breakup of families--although the status of other family members, including spouses, will be determined on a case-by-case basis with no guarantee of automatic or quick approval. A guarantee of unity for the basic family unit would be much better.

There is particular concern that a rush of applications in the last months before the May deadline will cause problems. It almost certainly will be necessary for the immigration service to streamline its procedures to ensure receipt of applications from all who think themselves eligible before the amnesty expires. Clearly, generosity is called for. And if there is evidence of a denial of rights, an extension of the deadline would be appropriate.

More than 970,000 general amnesty and 160,000 agricultural worker applications have been received thus far. But tens of thousands of undocumented aliens remain untouched by the law.

"Even if an additional 300,000 to 400,000 applicants could be reached, the size of the remaining illegal population in the country would be almost twice the number who have been legalized," the new Carnegie Endowment study concluded. In other words, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act will in any event be only a beginning in resolving the problem.

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