LOS ANGELES -- An independent study of the illegal alien amnesty program has praised the helpfulness and energy of the often-maligned U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, but warned that many eligible aliens may miss the May 4 deadline unless more isolated immigrants are reached and some restrictions loosened.

The report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace appeared to put as much blame on Congress for making large numbers of aliens ineligible for legalized status as it did on INS for failing to penetrate the ignorance and distrust of some immigrant communities, particularly in the Northeast.

Doris Meissner and Demetrios Papademetriou, authors of the report, noted Congress approved amnesty on the premise that immigration laws "will be made more efficient and effective if there is not a large resident illegal alien population and if those who have contributed to the society are given the opportunity to regularize their status."

Restricting eligibility mostly to aliens who lived in the country before 1982 -- less generous than amnesties offered elsewhere -- means that "perhaps twice as many aliens as those eligible for the one-year legalization program will remain in illegal status," they said. Congressional refusal to extend the amnesty officially to immediate relatives of eligible applicants has also discouraged many eligibles, the authors said.

Meissner, a Carnegie senior associate and former acting INS commissioner, and Papademetriou, executive director of Population Associates International, said, "We believe that the legalization program requires immediate, firm policy intervention. Otherwise, a unique opportunity to bring better order to this nation's complex immigration structure will be squandered."

Their report, "The Legalization Countdown: A Third Quarter Assessment," recommended that INS improve its relations with local community groups to provide amnesty information and assistance to isolated immigrants. The immigration service should try to calm fears of split families by publicly declaring ineligible family members to be "deserving of sympathetic treatment . . . on a case-by case basis, the report said.

INS should accelerate distribution of temporary resident cards to approved applicants so their friends and neighbors will be encouraged to apply, and should announce that a simple declaration of intent to file will satisfy the May 4 deadline, the authors recommended.

The report provided a detailed analysis of U.S. Census Bureau and INS estimates of the number of U.S. residents eligible for amnesty. The authors estimated the eligible population could range from 1.834 million to 2.56 million. As of Wednesday, 981,424 aliens (plus 272,868 under a special program for agricultural workers) had applied for amnesty, INS said.

Local INS legalization offices had performed well in processing applicants, the report said, but the service could "lose the benefit of a new image of efficiency, professionalism, energy and serious commitment to its service responsibilities" if it does not make extra efforts to bring in remaining eligibles.

INS spokesman Duke Austin called the report "basically quite complimentary" and said the service hoped a new national publicity campaign would alert the hundreds of thousands who have yet to apply that they must act soon.

The Carnegie report praised the new "Don't Get Left Behind" campaign, which includes a television commercial showing a train leaving a station. That will be followed later by a blunt warning that "there's no future in staying illegal -- after May 4 you'll never be able to apply for legalization again."

The report noted that the amnesty program's unusual congressional mandate to pay for itself from application fees -- $185 per adult, $420 per family -- allowed it to finance a quick start without waiting for a specific appropriation. Now, however, the rate of new applications has slowed to about 4,000 a day, with not enough fees to match expenses. Some staff have been laid off and offices closed.

Austin and other INS officials have predicted a surge of applications just before the May 4 deadline. But, the report said, "staff reductions all but make certain that when a surge occurs, especially in areas where response has been particularly slow, personnel resources with the proper training and experience will be inadequate to handle the demand."

The authors said early INS success in persuading applicants to come directly to federal legalization offices, rather than go through licensed community groups called Qualified Designated Entities (QDEs), had accelerated the program but threatened to cripple handling of difficult last-minute cases.

The Carnegie report said INS officials were "reportedly aggressive and condescending" toward QDE officials last summer when it appeared that community groups would not be needed to help applicants find documents and prepare applications. Many QDEs dropped out, complaining of the INS attitude and poor financial support.

Now, the report said, the share of aliens seeking QDE help "has increased steadily in recent months as most new applicants no longer have 'open-and-shut' cases . . . . " Also, it emphasized, community groups provide the most promising avenue for reaching eligible Asians and other non-Mexican immigrants whose response to the amnesty has been much slower than expected.

The report urged INS officials to make extra efforts to assure employers that they will incur no tax or other legal problems from giving aliens letters certifying that they were working in the United States before the Jan. 1, 1982, amnesty cutoff, even if they did not report the wages at the time. It also called for new rules allowing filing of incomplete applications to be finished after the May 4 deadline, something INS sources said is being discussed at the agency.

----------------THE AMNESTY PROGRAM--------------

Details of amnesty provisions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986:

General Requirements: Applicants for amnesty must show that they have been in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982.

Farm Worker Requirements: Agricultural workers must prove that they worked in the United States harvesting certain perishable commodities for a minimum of 90 days from May 1985 to May 1986.

Total Applicants: 1,241,000 since May 5, 1987. Of those, 267,000 applied under the plan for agricultural workers.

Rate of Approval: The Immigration and Naturalization Service has approved amnesty for about 92% of all applicants.

Deadline: Applicants must submit forms by May 4.

SOURCE: Associated Press