By mid-afternoon on May 5, the multitudes had failed to show at the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s legalization office at 3123 N. Pulaski. Sitting idly at the table that greeted all comers were five INS information officers, clearly bored.

Florence Blaney, the site manager, a slender, rather cheerful white woman in her 50s with an unusual air of efficiency about her, was surveying the scene.

“We’ve probably seen more than 500 people so far,” she told an eager young reporter from Northwestern’s campus paper.

Clearly, thousands had been expected for the first day of what has generally been regarded as the INS “amnesty” for undocumented workers. At the Pulaski site, more than two hundred black plastic chairs sat empty in rows that filled a quarter of the spacious new offices. “We’re just renting here for processing, that’s all,” Blaney explained.

Across the room from the chairs were a handful of small cubicles, piles of unpacked boxes, and a table covered with tiny little American flags, a few of which had been presented to the lucky first “illegals” to mark the start of the year-long INS experiment in documenting the undocumented.

Throughout the room, hung on columns, were official portraits of the president and other government officials. Flanking the five seated officers were an American flag and an INS flag hanging from the ceiling. There were information signs in English and Spanish, and the offices smelled of fresh paint and cleaning agents. To get in, people had to step around ladders and workers finishing the doors.

“I guess I was expecting more people,” the Northwestern reporter said, looking around the vast room. She clutched her bag and leaned toward the officers at the table.

“Most people today are just asking for the application and some very general information,” explained Sylvia Kolowski, who, in spite of her surname, is a Spanish-fluent Italian-American. “We then refer them to a Qualified Designated Entity for additional assistance in filling out the forms.” (It was obvious by the sure way she rolled off “qualified designated entity” that Kolowski liked this particular bit of bureaucratese.)

She then held out a list of the QDEs, including Asian Human Services, Salvation Army, Polish American Congress, International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Travelers & Immigrants Aid, and Nuestra Senora de las Americas, among others. From the QDEs, which help gather documents necessary to prove residence, applicants go to INS-approved doctors for medicals, then back to the INS for interviews and a decision.

“Today they’re just trying to confirm what they already know,” said Piero Giannelli, the officer sitting next to Kolowski, who is also Spanish-fluent and Italian-American, though he had an accent. “We have gotten the information out and they’re just reaffirming it. Mostly we get Mexicans, Indians, Ethiopians, Filipinos.” He sniffed. “Europeans have other ways to legalize. Marriage, for example. Europeans don’t wait. They can get married quicker.”

Some Europeans, however, were coming to the Pulaski site for help anyway. There was Joe, an older Polish man in polyester from the cap on his head to the translucent socks on his feet. He was there to collect the forms for his illegal cousin, also named Joe.

“He works, he pays taxes,” Joe said of his cousin Joe. “That’s why he couldn’t come down here today; he’s working, he’s a hard worker. He deserves to be an American. The downtown thing takes too long. We’ll try it this way. In the meantime, I’ve got him prepared. He’s learned the language, he went to night school. Now I’ve got to find one of these doctors on this list to give Joe a physical. He’ll pass. He’s a hard worker.”

As Joe read through the forms a brown-skinned couple in identical blue running jackets came in, a little girl held by the hands between them. The couple wore work pants and T-shirts but the little girl was in a lace dress and patent leather shoes. She wore her hair tied back and smelled of a popular children’s cologne.

Angela Alonso-Onate, one of the INS officers and a Mexican-American, rose to help them. In Spanish, they explained they were Mexican laborers, that the husband had been working for seven years under a false name. Lastly, the mother said the child was American-born, a definite advantage in the documentation process. Alonso-Onate, her Spanish choppy but warm, complimented them on the beauty of their daughter. The parents glowed. Then Alonso-Onate explained the process and referred them to the QDEs.

“Are there any Catholic groups?” asked the mother.

“Absolutely,” replied Alonso-Onate.

“Good,” said the father, who had been silent until now. “Then we can do two things at once: Fill out the form and pray.”

He was skeptical about telling the “migra” his survival secrets. Alonso-Onate explained that the legalization office isn’t allowed to give information to any other government agency, or even to its own agents. “It’s confidential,” she said. The man nodded, willing but not convinced.

Khairunissa Bawaney, wrapped in a sari and accompanied by an anonymous female relative, had no fear. “My daughter was born here,” said Bawaney, a native of Pakistan who came in 1981 on a tourist visa and stayed. “My husband was here on a work visa and I came to see him. I got pregnant and decided I wanted my child to be born here. Her name is Uruniza. She’s an American.”

Site manager Blaney said the only way to fail the plan is to not have documents, to have been convicted on a public charge — three misdemeanors or one felony — to be a member of the Communist or Nazi parties, or to have a medical condition for which there is no waiver.

Eventually, the area in front of the five INS officers filled as applicants trickled in. News stories, however, had been conveying a more dramatic picture and the Northwestern reporter wasn’t satisfied. “I suppose it would help if I could speak Spanish,” she said.

Outside, Jose, a stringy young man with what seemed like universal joints, anguished against the wall without going in. He’d heard of another reason for not being accepted: homosexuality. “I’m sure, you know, they’ll find out,” he said, pacing and staring beyond the doors. “What if they want me to take an AIDS test? What if I fail that?” After more than an hour, he left, undocumented.

Packing up her notebooks as she walked, the Northwestern student was leaving, not sure of her findings. “I’m a sophomore, major in journalism and minor in history. I don’t know, I’ll probably go on to law school after this,” she said, her step light and carefree. “‘You know, postpone reality as long as possible.”