Ernest Gustafson, who administered the largest amnesty program in the country as Los Angeles district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he will retire in March. A successor has not been named.
The once-obscure office became a hot seat when the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed into law in 1986, and the five-county INS district processed 1,179,000 amnesty applications--44% of the nationwide total.
Together with INS Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell and disc jockey Luis Roberto (El Tigre) Gonzalez, Gustafson formed a trio amnistia that made public appearances across the Southwest to appeal to immigrants to drop their traditional fear of the INS and apply for amnesty. Gustafson also has been a regular feature on a Spanish-language radio station six nights a week, answering questions about immigration.
Proud of Trust
"I'm proud that 86% of the people who applied for amnesty listened to us and trusted us enough to apply directly rather than going through other lawyers or groups, which they could have done," Gustafson said in an interview Tuesday, the day he announced his retirement.
"We've hit some home runs in the past two years, and I want to go out when our batting average is so high. . . . I'm also marketable at this point. I don't know what I'll be (doing) later."
He said he was offered a contract with a major Los Angeles-based law firm that deals with Spanish-speaking clients that would have paid him $1.25 million a year to use his face and voice in advertising for the firm, which he declined to name.
"I left the meeting," he said. "I was incensed. It would sound like everything I had been saying about people being able to trust INS and come out of the shadows wasn't true, that they had to go through this law firm."
'Tough to Replace'
"It's going to be tough to replace him," Ezell said. "There's probably no one who knows amnesty better than this person." He called Gustafson as a "big-hearted guy . . . a hard worker and very fair," and added that part of Gustafson's legacy will be the requirement that his successor speak Spanish fluently.
Gustafson, 50, said he hopes to find work in a private or nonprofit organization in which he can continue working with the immigrant community.
Although an adversary relationship has always existed between the INS and many immigrants and their advocates, Gustafson minimized the discord among groups, according to several immigration attorneys.
"There have been other district directors with a stonewall mentality," said Charles Wheeler of the National Center for Immigrants' Rights here. "But Ernie Gustafson has a very good reputation as someone who listens, who's intelligent and, to some degree, compassionate. He will be missed."
One of the most important stances Gustafson took during his five-year stint as district director was to invoke his broad discretionary powers to expand national INS policy and allow spouses of immigrants who had qualified for amnesty to remain in the United States even though they themselves did not qualify.
Gustafson will be retiring after 32 years as a federal employee. On his first day out of the Border Patrol academy, he said, "I was called every name in the book by the wife of a man we had picked up who didn't have his green card, and (I) realized we weren't exactly loved."
Had the INS been more open, he said, he felt some such problems might have been avoided.
"I wish the service in general had started a more pro-active community involvement years ago--it would have given us much more acceptance in the community," he said. He said he plans to recommend that some of the agency's 16 amnesty offices remain open as community outreach services even after the amnesty process ends.