A GROUP OF 4,000 to 6,000 immigrants is facing a terrible winter unless a single act of compassion is performed that would improve their situation dramatically. While all three branches of this government are involved in trying to sort out their fate, these immigrants have been denied temporary permission to work, to support their families and literally to survive until their case is resolved. It is a pathetic situation and one that should not be allowed to continue.

Immigration reform legislation passed in 1986 granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had been in this country since 1982. Amnesty was not offered to people who had initially entered the United States legally, unless their visas had expired and their illegal status become known to the government before the 1982 cutoff date. The INS interpreted the phrase "known to the government" to mean "known to the INS," but U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin agreed with plaintiffs that this interpretation was too narrow. He ordered the INS to accept amnesty applications from those whose illegal status was timely known to any branch of the government -- the Social Security Administration, for example, or the Department of Labor. In addition, he ruled that people who had entered legally but failed before 1982 to file required quarterly reports or change of address notices with the INS had also become illegal and were therefore entitled to amnesty. The problem is that these rulings were issued very close to the date on which applications for amnesty had to be filed, and many otherwise eligible applicants did not make the deadline. Judge Sporkin wants to offer some relief to late filers as well.

The full Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit later reversed part of Judge Sporkin's ruling, and this case, together with a similar one from Florida, where courts came to the opposite conclusion, is now awaiting Supreme Court action. Congress has also considered the matter, and though it was not resolved before adjournment, committees in both houses have promised to take it up again this winter. Meanwhile, however, thousands of families are in limbo. Either the courts or Congress could come to their rescue within a matter of months, but in the interim the INS has refused to allow them to work. Their situation is desperate and unfair, since it was the government's own error in interpreting the statute that forestalled their timely applications for amnesty.

Judge Sporkin has appealed to the INS for compassion. His own injunction ordering the agency to issue work permits was reversed this month, and a plea for mercy and common sense is a last resort. Who will be hurt by allowing these immigrants to work for eight months until their fate is resolved? Why is the INS stonewalling when a humane solution is so obvious?