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11th-Hour Amnesty Push Criticized 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 are evidence of the inadequate publicity effort.

In Orange County, dissatisfaction with the INS campaign prompted the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights to launch its own informational drive with pamphlets to be distributed within the county's large Latino population.

The coalition, which was put together by the Orange County Human Relations Commission and United Way agencies, two weeks ago unveiled a handbook that included complete listings of county organizations handling amnesty applications, as well as where to find legal and financial help.

Coalition coordinator Robin Blackwell, who was unavailable for comment Monday, earlier said that the pamphlet would be distributed to approximately 35 groups in the county.

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.

"This type of campaign is among the most difficult in marketing because you're dealing with a fundamental value change," said 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.

Times staff writer Ray Perez contributed to this article.

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