With her background, Mavis Salgado might have been named least likely to succeed, instead of acting chief legalization officer for El Monte's Immigration and Naturalization Service office.
The daughter of a migrant worker, unable to speak a word of English when she started school and an indifferent student who spent much of her childhood working in crops, her success story surprises even her.
In El Monte's teeming INS office on Flair Drive, where more than 5,000 illegal aliens filed applications for legal residency on the last day of the one-year amnesty program, Salgado clearly is the boss.
"I trained all these people, and they're absolutely the best," she said of the 32 employees who are still laboring over thousands of applications for legal residency status well after the amnesty program's May 4 deadline.
An affable 40-year-old who favors spiked heels and lots of jewelry, Salgado chats, laughs and heaps praise on a staff that had to be inventive and tough to get through the final hours of the amnesty period, when thousands of last-minute applications were turned in.
The office, like the staff, was pressed beyond the limit in the final days. Its parking lot and two small elevators to the upstairs offices were inadequate; thousands of envelopes containing applications were heaped in piles on the floor, and seemingly endless crowds of people stood anxiously in line.
Salgado said she borrowed a big laundry cart from the U.S. Postal Service to hold the applications as they poured in on the last day, when INS offices stayed open until midnight. Some employees stood outside on the curb that night in icy winds, taking applications from passing cars to relieve parking and traffic congestion and crowding on the elevators.
"We took everybody," Salgado boasted the next day. "At midnight there was not a soul in sight. It was a lot of very hard work, but everyone stuck it out."
Mercy Rojas, Salgado's secretary, called her boss "a great teacher--it's her attitude. She gives us an opportunity to learn everything we can."
Rosslyn Gray, hired part time as a clerk during the amnesty program and who now is interested in a career with the INS, said: "We stress courtesy and pride. We were taught to act professional, to treat all these people with dignity."
Gene Pyeatt, deputy district director of legalization, said the El Monte office is the third-largest in the Los Angeles area, and is processing 62,757 applications.
Many of the immigration offices that were opened for the amnesty period are headed by women, Pyeatt said, adding that Salgado "is doing a great job. She runs a nice office and she's a good supervisor."
An INS veteran of 15 years who had worked in several departments before entering the amnesty program a year ago, Salgado applied skills and techniques that she learned "from every supervisor I ever had. That's all the management training I've ever had. That and common sense."
From the time she was born, Salgado said, her family traveled each June from their home in Calexico to Central California. As small children, Salgado and her two younger brothers helped their parents as they moved from one ripening crop to another--plums, apricots and walnuts--living in whatever housing was available until October, when the season ended. When she was a teen-ager, the family got steady summer work at a fruit processing plant near San Jose and lived in a house they considered good, even though it lacked indoor bathrooms.
Both parents were legal residents of the United States when they brought the children across the border, she said, and her father became a citizen through his Army service during World War II. As they followed the crops, Salgado said, her father worked as a foreman and her mother took in boarders, feeding as many as 13 field workers daily, plus her family.
"We were lucky to have a job," Salgado said. "In June, when other kids went on vacation, we went to work. When school opened in the fall our father made us go, and I was the one who had to enroll my brothers.
"We always started school in San Jose and transferred to Calexico in October, and it was always hard. In San Jose, they knew we'd be leaving, and sometimes they wouldn't give us books or assign us desks. Then we'd get incomplete grades, and it was hard to catch up when we got home.
"Our mother insisted that we get diplomas, and we feared her more than anyone on Earth. Our father had to be gone months at a time to work in other places, and she was in charge."