U.S. political asylum system strains to shelter masses Swelling crowds cause long delays

April 25, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Two years after it was altered to abolish harsh and arbitrary procedures, the U.S. system of political asylum cannot cope with the growing crowds of people at the nation's gates, immigration officials say.

Nationwide, 250,000 foreigners are waiting in line to see one of only 150 asylum officers. Some have been waiting for years. All say they fear persecution at home, and immigration officials estimate that tens of thousands really are running for their lives.

Under the law, most are allowed into the United States immediately. They are then physically on free soil but legally in limbo.

Because of the backup, half have no hope of a hearing in the foreseeable future and thus no resolution of their cases.

"Our twin goals are compassion and control," said Gregg A. Beyer, director of asylum at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "For half the people applying for asylum, we are giving neither."

Many of those who apply for asylum are abusing the system, using it as a way to better their lives rather than to flee repression, officials say. More than a few frauds and felons are among them, and the overwhelmed asylum system cannot tell the terrorist from the terrified.

Congress, having learned that a major suspect in the World Trade Center bombing had entered the nation by pleading for asylum, will begin hearings this week on proposals to put thousands of arriving asylum-seekers on the next flight out.

"Our national philosophy is to accept people fleeing persecution," said Verne Jervis, an immigration agency spokesman. "We don't want to turn them away. There are good people who deserve asylum, no question about it. But it's so easy to defeat the system, a 10-year-old could do it. There are bad people who show up and say, 'I'll be killed if you send me back.' And we have no choice but to admit them."

Immigration officials and immigrants' advocates agree that the system is not working but disagree why. INS officials say that legal reforms intended to ensure that asylum-seekers are treated with justice force them to admit the bad with the good. But critics of the agency say it has so few asylum officers trained to uphold those rights and root out wrongdoers that the system cannot help but fail.

Each day the ideal of political asylum confronts reality at places like Newark International Airport, where last year 23 officers faced 23,743 people who sought asylum, and at Kennedy International Airport, where dozens of asylum-seekers with false travel documents, or no documents at all, enter the United States each week.

Last year, 103,447 people from 154 nations sought political asylum in the United States. Most came from Guatemala, El Salvador, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, India and Pakistan. By September, 330,000 people will be waiting for hearings. If the nation sealed its borders, the last of them would not be heard until well after the turn of the century.

The asylum problems reflect those of the nation's immigration system as a whole, which each year tries to control millions of people seeking to enter the country, legally and illegally.

Nearly 1 million foreigners applied for citizenship last year. One in 10 asked for asylum; one in seven were refugees selected abroad for resettlement in the United States by the State Department.

America's asylum officers were hired in 1991 to reform a Cold War system that was often cruel and capricious. No federal asylum law existed until 1980, and no regulations defined the law until 1990. In their absence, the process was politicized.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a system that had been set up largely for people fleeing communism was forced to redefine itself. The immigration agency created the asylum officer corps to supplant agency enforcers who were, in effect, police officers acting as judges.

But as the system gained a measure of compassion, it may have lost a measure of control. It has become less abusive but more abused by people seeking to defraud it. An immigrant can arrive at an airport, having destroyed his travel documents, plead for asylum and leave with only a tentative court date in 1995.

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