Thirty-five years ago the federal government’s amnesty program began with a light turnout at immigrant centers in San Diego and Imperial counties. Ultimately, about 2.7 million people achieved legal residency under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
From The San Diego Union, May 6, 1987:
Light turnout for amnesty
By Joe Gandelman, Staff Writer
The federal government’s landmark amnesty program started calmly yesterday in San Diego and Imperial counties with a light turnout at legalization centers amid predictions the number of applications will increase in coming weeks.
By the end of the day, Immigration and Naturalization Service centers in Kearny Mesa, Escondido and El Centro gave out 850 applications, interviewed, processed and issued eight temporary residence permits and prepared to grant three more permits today. Applicants were from Mexico, Iceland, Canada, India, Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guyana.
INS officials attributed the low turnout yesterday to undocumented aliens’ fears of deportation, the late arrival of application forms, delays in medical examinations, the presence of the news media and confusion over the 12-month legalization period.
“There’s a tendency to think that if you do not apply by midnight May 5 you’ll turn into a pumpkin. But this is not a Cinderalla program — you have a year to apply,” according to Jim Turnage, district director of the INS.
Confusion was evident among many of the aliens who turned up at the offices of the 11 agencies in San Diego and Imperial counties which are authorized to process applications, according to some agency workers.
“We had people come in who thought that this was the last and the first day to apply: They were all panicking,” said Flora Alatorre, office manager for North County Centro Inc., an Escondido social service agency.
Art Shanks, deputy district director of immigration reform, predicted the INS would be “overwhelmed” with applications by January because “by then people will know we’re sincere and generous once they see people starting to walk out of here with that magic card.”
He said the INS centers are prepared to handle 160,000 applications. The INS estimates there are 100,000 undocumented aliens in San Diego County and 5,000 in Imperial County and that half of them could qualify for amnesty.
By mid-morning, the first temporary resident permit in San Diego was issued to Maria Cardenas de Hermosillo of Lakeside and her three children.
Each family member was photographed for identification cards, which allows them to stay in the country. Bobby Joel, 18, also registered for the Selective Service. And Maria, who has worked as a maid since coming here in 1977, said, “I’m so happy. I never thought it would be so soon.”
Her daughter Sandra, 19, stood a few feet away, clutched her own card and looked at it in awe.
“I feel like I really belong here now,” she said softly.
In Escondido, INS officials said 12 people camped overnight outside the center’s door in anticipation of crowds that never materialized.