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Critics Label 11th-Hour Amnesty Publicity Push as Too Little, Too Late

February 16, 1988|GEORGE RAMOS | Times Staff Writer

A $5-million campaign to convince reluctant illegal immigrants to apply for amnesty before the May 4 deadline has gotten off the ground, but critics believe the 11th-hour effort may be too little, too late.

In fact, some of the harshest criticism of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's handling of the amnesty program--under which illegals can petition for residency if they have lived in this country since before Jan. 1, 1982--has focused on its public information and advertising.

While lauding the last-minute drive, an independent study released last week criticized the media and information campaign as "seriously inadequate."

The campaign was organized by three West Los Angeles media companies, known collectively as the Justice Group, which were hired by the INS.

"These people (Justice Group) have learned a lot along the way and some of their research is now bearing fruit," said Doris Meissner, a former acting INS commissioner and a co-author of the 143-page study, in an interview. "But I wish some of this stuff had happened earlier. It's pretty late in the game now."

The campaign of TV, radio and print ads and literature in as many as 30 languages was seen by the Justice Group as a key to the success of the amnesty program. So far, according to critics, the unexpected low numbers of aliens registering for amnesty is evidence of the inadequate publicity effort.

Meissner said the legalization effort will be hard pressed to register 1.4 million illegals, which is well below the 1.9 million predicted by federal officials. Nearly 500,000 aliens have signed up for amnesty so far in the Los Angeles area, immigration officials report. The INS had expected 800,000 applications by this time.

Criticism over the publicity effort also has centered on how:

- The national campaign organizers did not coordinate their efforts with local immigration groups. INS field offices were particularly critical of the Justice Group. Local INS officials said they had to initiate their own publicity efforts.

- The Justice Group faltered in reaching Asian-Pacific immigrants because it did not have any ranking Asians on its staff. That effort has improved in recent months, Meissner said.

- The publicity effort in the first nine months, with INS concurrence, was a balanced approach with ads about legalization and employer sanctions. Vocal immigration advocates believe the effort should have been more focused on illegals, persuading more of them to come forward.

The INS and the campaign's organizers hotly contest much of the criticism, pointing out that the Justice Group was awarded the $10.7-million contract for the INS amnesty program just three weeks before the program formally commenced last May 5. The reform bill was passed in November, 1986, and INS officials said it took the intervening months to develop specifications for the contract and then work through the bidding process. The total budget for the campaign may come to $14 million, INS officials said.

"They turned out TV spots in 20 days. It was unbelievable," said Sam Sinclair, a former public relations executive whose day-to-day job at the INS is to work with the Justice Group in developing the campaign. "Any other (public relations) agency I've been with couldn't have done that."

The Justice Group's point man in the effort, Republican Party activist and media executive Fernando Oaxaca, has been particularly frustrated over the adverse comments in the report.

"When you get a half a million in a town like Los Angeles to ask for an application, that doesn't happen accidentally," said Oaxaca, who heads up Coronado Communications, one of the three media firms that comprise Justice Group. The other two firms are La Agencia de Orci & Associados and Hill & Knowlton.

"They made a decision to alter their lives forever," Oaxaca said.

"I think Kellogg's would be very happy if it could spend $10 million to get that many people to make a decision for a new Kellogg's cereal forever. That's a hell of a bargain," he said.

Observing that cornflakes are easier to sell than amnesty, experts in the marketing industry believe that any media group--no matter how competent--would face a tough time convincing people in such a campaign.

"This type of campaign is among the most difficult in marketing because you're dealing with a fundamental value change," explained Ben M. Enis of USC, a marketing expert with more than 20 years' experience in the field.

Given the historical mistrust among illegals of the INS, it is not surprising that many of them are hesitant to come forward, regardless of the virtues extolled about amnesty in public information pronouncements, he said.

The 11th-hour campaign, which began in January, incorporates what marketing experts believe is an important element to sway the hesitant--personal testimonials of success.

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