Green Means "go"
Local INS center in Salinas expands its services.
Thursday, July 20, 2000
In 1989, the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided it was sick and tired of the scams and counterfeit operations that were landing fake green cards in the hands of so-called illegal aliens. To stump successful counterfeit operations, the INS instituted new green cards that expire every 10 years, pledging to change the design, add new computerized security features and update photos. The historically dubbed "green cards" aren''t even green anymore. They''re silver.
It''s still too early to tell how well the plan will work to stymie false green card production, especially since green cards became a must for employment when a 1986 law imposed sanctions against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. But the INS has, at least, created more work for itself.
Recently, the first wave of permanent legal residents with expiring cards came due for renewal, forcing the INS to begin offering green card renewal services in its Salinas Application Support Center and 120 similar offices throughout the country. Ernesto Cruz, INS manager at the Salinas center, says the new service brought an additional 500 people into the center during the first month. Since its opening two and a half years ago, the center had seen an average of 1,000 people per month for fingerprinting appointments.
Despite the increase, however, Cruz claims the Salinas center could use a little more traffic. "We''re kinda slow compared to other offices," he explains. "People seem to prefer to go to the San Jose office. A lot of people still don''t realize we''re here."
But according to attorney Joel Cruz-Esparza of California Rural Legal Assistance''s citizenship project in Salinas, "This is a substantial service." Cruz runs a program offering legal assistance to the 10 percent of immigrants who have trouble with their citizenship applications due to arrest records and other problems.
Before the June 20 addition of green card renewal services, INS centers like the one in Salinas only offered fingerprinting for immigrants applying for changes in immigration status. For all other immigration concerns, locals had to trek up to the larger San Jose office and face hours in long lines, sometimes only to be told to return the following day.
As it now stands, legal residents in the Monterey County area up for renewal of their green cards can gather their identification cards, the $110 application fee, photos, copies of their expiring card, and a completed Form I-90 and head to Salinas'' Main Street office for one-stop service. According to CRLA and Catholic Charities, the legal immigrant community of Monterey County, which grows by an estimated 2,000-3,000 people each year, is composed of 90 percent Mexican nationals, with the vast majority working in farm labor.
While residents who fail to reapply for the newfangled green cards will not lose their permanent resident status, having an updated card is paramount. The green card--known also as a Resident Alien Card and on the streets as a "mica"--is the piece of paper that enables a legal U.S. resident to work, receive benefits, and step back over the U.S. border after visits abroad. Without one, legal residents stand in violation of U.S. law and face grave difficulties in going about their daily lives.
Only a Test
The 1989 decision to impose expiration dates on green cards came on the heels of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which afforded amnesty to certain groups of immigrant workers. According to Cruz-Esparza, the first eligible immigrants were granted amnesty in 1989-90. Hence the timing of the INS'' 10-year warranty on green cards.
While Cruz-Esparza concedes that "local centers offering green card renewal is a step in the right direction," he laments that the augmented services have stopped there. "The INS openly said that it would also offer other services like citizenship tests locally," he points out.
The citizenship test is what all residents must pass before they can have their final INS interview to determine whether they are "ready" to become citizens. The test used to be offered in local community venues like the Salinas adult school, but the nationwide sale of fraudulent passing marks led the INS to cut off all outside providers, leaving locals to once again head north for services.
"If they could take the test here in Salinas ahead of the final interview, it would be a lot easier," says Cruz-Esparza, who along with Jorge Sifuentes of Catholic Charities in Salinas encourages residents to apply for full citizenship both for long-term financial savings as well as the added benefits of citizenship.
Jorge Sifuentes thinks the INS extension of services will happen, but on INS time. "The INS is doing a step-by-step process, starting with fingerprints, now green card renewal, then maybe photos, then testing," muses Sifuentes. "I think the INS will do it in the future, it just means a lot of red tape and clearance time."
Having worked with Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) three years ago to bring the INS Mobile Outreach Unit down to Salinas every other month, Sifuentes already sees a increase in INS services. The Mobile Outreach Unit saves many folks the trip to San Jose by answering immigration-related questions and providing assistance with forms.
From his small INS center in Salinas, Cruz voices a similar sentiment to Sifuentes''.
He and his staff of three fingerprint technicians, a supervisor and a guard do their best to "be more customer friendly," he says, by providing forms and phone numbers to point customers in the right direction.
"The INS did say they would offer citizenship tests and I have no idea why that''s on hold," he admits, "but things are moving along, and I think we will see more and more services offered at the Application Support Centers."