SAN FRANCISCO -- The desperate attempts of hundreds of smuggled Chinese nationals to land by boat in New York and California has prompted an increasingly urgent flurry of activity in Congress about how and whether to narrow the gateway to freedom.
Three bills in the House and two in the Senate are being prepared, all designed to toughen the U.S. asylum law.
Rep. Romano Mazzoli, a Kentucky Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration and Refugees, said this week he will expedite his own bill on asylum reform. He cited increased political support following the dramatic landing last Sunday of a steamer that ran aground off New York carrying nearly 300 illegal Chinese aliens. Six of the aliens drowned trying to swim to shore.
"I don't think the [time] has ever been better for doing something sensible and reasonable about this," said Mr. Mazzoli. "Everybody is enthusiastic. The Chinese situation has added an emphasis, but this problem has been with us a long, long time."
Carolyn Blum, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an immigration specialist, called the mood in Washington around the political asylum issue "absolute hysteria."
"To start tampering with the law in a moment of hysteria is a mistake," she said.
Some leaders in the Chinese-American community expressed concern that the reaction to the Chinese immigrants, who are vastly outnumbered by immigrants from Mexico, Haiti and other countries, is a flashback to the idea of a "yellow peril" that virtually excluded legal Chinese immigration to the United States from 1882 to 1943.
Urging a calm review of the political asylum process, Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights group in San Francisco, said: "We don't want to see laws that have been in place being scuttled that would compromise people's rights."
About 2,500 Chinese nationals have been detained in the last two years trying to enter the United States illegally, according to officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington. If they are discovered on vessels intercepted outside of U.S. waters, they are turned back, as Chinese passengers on the Mermaid I and the East Wood vessels were rebuffed this spring off Honduras and the Marshall Islands, said Duke Austin, an INS spokesman.
PTC But once the Chinese nationals land in the United States, their fate improves dramatically, as it would for anyone who arrives and pleads for political asylum, said Mr. Austin. "It's no different for the Haitians, the Chinese, the Sri Lankans or the Guatemalans," he said.
Most of the Chinese detained have asked for political asylum, according to Mr. Austin. They then post a bond of several thousand dollars, receive a temporary work permit and "then fall out of the system," he said. Few return for their political asylum hearing, he said.
Under political pressure, the INS has said it will detain the New York refugees until at least their first hearings on political asylum. But agency officials complain that long-term detention is prohibitively expensive because hearings could take as long as two years.
Under the provisions of one bill, U.S. officials would have the power of "summary exclusion," enabling them to make on-the-spot determinations of whether the claim of political persecution is valid.
Those who fail to meet the test would be deported immediately.
INS officials say they are overwhelmed trying to keep up with the numbers who seek political asylum. The New York landing this week followed the landing of more than 500 Chinese nationals in late May and early June along the Northern California coast. About 300 passengers were dropped off from a freighter at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge on May 24, and another 200 were found in two small fishing vessels south of San Francisco on June 2.
"The numbers of vessels are increasing and the numbers of people on the vessels are increasing," said Mr. Austin. "Given our limited resources, it's putting a strain on the Service."
The New York steamer, the Golden Venture, was the 17th smuggling vessel seized by U.S. authorities since 1991 for attempting to transport illegal Chinese immigrants to the United States.
The traffic in Chinese nationals is being described by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of a lucrative, growing international human smuggling ring linked to Asian organized crime.
"We don't see this as a humanitarian effort," said Rick Smith, an FBI spokesman. "We think it involves a coalition of groups or individuals with ties to organized Asian crime groups."
Some in Congress acknowledged the daunting logistics of trying to patrol the East and West coasts. The Coast Guard is admittedly not in the business of cracking down on illegal immigration.
"We're not out there actively trying to find illegal aliens," said Gene Maestas, spokesman for the Coast Guard in San Francisco. "We work in conjunction with the INS under their direction."