Huge Backlogs, Delays Feared Under Senate Immigration Plan

Arturo Zavala, who worked on mushroom farms, got his green card in 1986 as part of an amnesty program for illegal immigrants. His application to bring the rest of his family to the United States was delayed for 14 years.
Arturo Zavala, who worked on mushroom farms, got his green card in 1986 as part of an amnesty program for illegal immigrants. His application to bring the rest of his family to the United States was delayed for 14 years. (By Barbara L. Johnston For The Washington Post)
By S. Mitra Kalita and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 24, 2006

Arturo Zavala entered the United States illegally from Mexico in 1976 and picked mushrooms in Pennsylvania for a decade before he became a legal resident. But that menial labor was not the toughest part of life here.

More difficult was gaining permission for his wife, daughter and two younger sons to join him and his eldest son here. The family finally reunited in 2001, 14 years after Zavala received his green card as part of a 1986 amnesty program for illegal immigrants.

"I missed my family," he said. "I would live here nine months and go visit them three months. When I went, they were little, and by the time I saw them again, they were all grown up. My wife was like a mother and father."

The long delays for Zavala's family were among the many unintended consequences of the 1986 law, which allowed nearly 3 million immigrants to gain legal status. But illegal workers and the government may face far greater problems if pending immigration legislation passes and three times as many people -- as many as 10 million by some estimates -- are permitted to apply for legalization.

"It would be an utter meltdown," said Peggy Gleason, a senior attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. "Despite the problems, [the 1986 amnesty] was actually an enormous success. Government made this huge effort to make all these offices that were very consumer friendly. I have no idea what the government is doing right now to prepare, but back then, they thought about it hard."

Now, there are two versions of the legislation. In the House, the focus is on border security. The Senate would permit illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least two years to apply for legal status; smaller legalization programs would apply to illegal farm workers and some children of illegal immigrants; and a guest-worker program would be established for as many as 200,000 people a year.

Of the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, about 10 million may register to apply for legalization if the Senate plan passes, said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a research center.

That could overwhelm the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which last year granted permanent residency to 1.1 million people and awarded temporary worker visas to 200,000.

Back in 1986, the numbers of illegal immigrants were far fewer than they are today, but federal agencies still had difficulty keeping up. Their backlogs grew even deeper when immigrants granted legal status exercised their rights to bring immediate relatives. Processing those applications took years, as in Zavala's case.

Zavala recalled long lines and a chaotic scene at the Lima, Pa., district office when he went to apply for amnesty in 1986. He said he felt lucky that his proof of residency and employment were accepted quickly. Many of his friends were not as lucky. Others were terrified to come forward, fearing they would be deported. "Many of my friends were afraid to apply," he said. "By the time I told them the rumors weren't true, the deadline was up."

Of this year's debate, he said, "I hope they make it like '86. But I hope they do it quicker for their families."

Supporters of the Senate proposal note that Congress has learned some lessons from 1986. The bill would set a six-year processing window and would require participating immigrants to register within 90 days.

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Added Workload
If the Senate immigration bill became law, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would have to process an estimated 10 million new immigrants on top of the 6 million applications for benefits (including citizenship and green cards) received each year.
Added Workload -  Immigration
SOURCES: Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, Migration Policy Institute | GRAPHIC: The Washington Post - July 24, 2006
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