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California and the West

Counties Offer INS the Use of Clerical Staff

Immigration: Backlog of applicants awaiting citizenship prompts proposals from Santa Clara and San Francisco.

April 29, 1998|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Two Bay Area counties, alarmed by the huge backlog of immigrants awaiting citizenship, have offered to lend clerical workers to local Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to speed up the process.

Santa Clara is poised to become the first county in the nation to reach such an agreement with the immigration agency, according to INS and county officials. The county has offered to send 10 clerks into the San Jose immigration office for six months, at a cost to the county of $150,000 to $200,000, said Jim McEntee, director of the county's Department of Human Relations.

"We feel it will save us time and money in the long run," McEntee said. "We have one of the longest waiting times [for naturalization] in the country. We have a very large immigrant population and a large number of people who want to become citizens."

San Francisco County has made a similar offer. A plan to lend 10 workers to the San Francisco INS office is expected to win final approval from the Board of Supervisors next month.

County officials fear that the state and federal governments may move to cut off many benefits to legal immigrants who are not citizens. That would leave counties to shoulder the burden of medical care and other aid to elderly or disabled immigrants, said San Francisco County Administrator Bill Lee, who has handled the negotiations with the INS.

"We look at this as long-term protection of the county's bottom line," Lee said.

He said San Francisco County plans to lend the INS a total of 40 workers--10 for each six-month term over a two-year period--who are on long-term disability and cannot perform their regular jobs. Those workers would otherwise be collecting workers' compensation, Lee said, so the program should not cost the city's general fund anything.

The idea of using local government workers to help the INS first surfaced a year ago in Dade County, Fla., INS spokesman Andrew Lluberes said. But until now, no county has been able to cut through the maze of red tape involved in lending county workers to a federal agency.

"The first and only one to come close to fruition is Santa Clara," Lluberes said. "If the program succeeds, it could be enormously important because it would free adjudicators to deal with the meat and substance of the applications."

Both the county and the city of Los Angeles have offered to lend workers to the INS, but neither has been able to reach agreement with the agency, county and city officials said Tuesday.

"We [offered] the district INS office 200 persons in one county department willing to volunteer off-duty hours--to work weekends or evenings to help get the backlog reduced," said Josie Marquez, supervisor of Los Angeles County's citizenship program.

The INS declined volunteers but said it was willing to accept up to 50 county clerical workers for six-month to two-year tours, Marquez said.

"That would fracture our budget," Marquez said. "They wanted us to pay them for eight-hour days."

Richard Rogers, director of the Los Angeles district of the INS, said it is "a mutual interest for everybody to get these backlogs down," but that "when we get down to negotiating what the county needs, what we need . . . it becomes a much more difficult situation."

Immigration activist Juan Jose Gutierrez expressed amazement when told about the San Francisco and Santa Clara programs.

"It has been offered here, and the INS said that they couldn't accept the offer," said Gutierrez, executive director of the One Stop Immigration Center in Los Angeles. "If this is happening, it is a major breakthrough."

With more than 400,000 immigrants awaiting a decision on citizenship applications, the seven-county Los Angeles district accounts for one-third of the nation's pending citizenship applications, Lluberes said. About half of the Los Angeles district applicants have waited 15 months for approval, Marquez said.

San Francisco also has a 15- to 18-month waiting period for some of its 77,000 pending applications. Immigrant rights groups have pressured Mayor Willie Brown and the Board of Supervisors to offer help to the INS to speed up the process, said Buck Bagot of the Bay Area Organizing Committee, a coalition of churches and labor unions that works on immigrant rights issues.

"The INS has just been overly cautious, even though we've had the support of the city," Bagot said.

In San Francisco, immigrant rights groups have organized mass marches on INS offices and on City Hall in the past year, demanding a speed-up in citizenship processing.

Officials in Santa Clara, San Francisco and Los Angeles counties said transforming legal immigrants to citizens saves counties money. But county officials also stressed that finances were not the sole concern.

"We want every resident of the county to be able to participate as fully as possible in the democratic process," said McEntee, in Santa Clara County.

He said negotiations between the county and the INS have been long, arduous and sometimes frustrating.

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