In a move that critics contend will hamper the quest of thousands of refugees seeking political asylum, the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has decided to close its Los Angeles asylum office in favor of a new site in Anaheim 30 miles away.
Refugee organizations call the relocation of the busiest asylum office in the nation a senseless gesture that will force refugees into a 45-minute drive or a 2 1/2-hour bus ride to press their cases.
"If you can't make it, you're in deportation proceedings," said Madeline Janis, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center in Los Angeles. "What it says is that the INS doesn't care about serving the community."
Rosemary Melville, INS director of asylum in Los Angeles, agreed the move will cause some inconvenience. But she added that the agency needs to consolidate its asylum operations, now split between Los Angeles and Laguna Niguel, and selected Anaheim because it has already relocated employees to that area.
Melville said a permanent location in Anaheim has not been picked, but the decision to relocate in that city is firm. She said the agency expects to close its Los Angeles office in December.
"I'm afraid this is the way it's going to be," Melville said. "The service has considered all its options."
The move to Anaheim is part of a nationwide effort by the INS to create a network of asylum offices to handle more equitably and efficiently the 100,000 pending applications nationwide.
The INS first sought to locate the new office in Buena Park, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The proposal sparked an outcry from refugee advocates who said the move would make applying far more difficult.
When negotiations for office space fell through earlier this year, the agency agreed to split its staff temporarily between Los Angeles and an office in Laguna Niguel, in southern Orange County. The offices are receiving about 2,400 asylum applications a month.
Refugee advocates urged the INS to establish its permanent office in Los Angeles, close to the city's large Salvadoran population, which makes up a significant proportion of asylum applicants.
But Melville said Los Angeles was not considered an attractive work site for INS employees. "We didn't want to go through training people . . . and then they show up and say, 'God, I can't stand the neighborhood' and leave," Melville said at the time.
Melville said Los Angeles also would have been too far a commute for INS employees who had already moved to Orange County in anticipation of the new asylum office opening there.
Janis said refugee organizations have proposed that the INS open a satellite office in Los Angeles or provide a "circuit riding" asylum officer, as will be done in San Diego and Las Vegas, who would make regular stops in the city. The INS has so far rejected those proposals as unwieldy.
"This move is completely focused on the needs of the INS and completely ignores the needs of the people applying for asylum," Janis said.