Needed Now: Reform of the Asylum Process Arrival of Shiploads of Chinese Latest Immigration Concern

June 13, 1993|By WARREN R. LEIDEN

In times such as these, it is difficult to keep in perspective ou most American value of offering refuge and protection to the persecuted.

The "foreigners" accused of bombing the World Trade Center, the arrival of shiploads of Chinese (apparently pawns in a highly profitable smuggling operation), and the Justice Department's seeming failure to manage and control current asylum claims begin to blur, with a little help, into one nasty message -- forget the law, just keep them all out!

Most observers agree that the current asylum system is broken. Since our asylum system was last reformed in 1990, the program has been significantly under-funded -- given a fixed budget without regard to projected needs of the program.

Also, asylum has been the victim of interdepartmental struggles within Immigration and Naturalization Service, especially where questions of resource allocation are concerned. In the internal jockeying for funds and resources, the Asylum Branch often gets short shrift. For example, asylum officers are being saddled in some regions with clerical duties that detract from the amount of casework they can do -- for example, performing data entry, issuing employment authorization documents, and typing deportation orders. Also, when money is available, it is routed elsewhere; when special needs surface (such as the pre-screening of Haitians at Guantanamo), money is drawn from the asylum offices already hurting for support staff and interpreters.

"Reform" proposals seeking to exploit the mismanagement and the recent negative publicity range from completely eliminating bTC the U.S. asylum program to reducing asylum decisions to a snap judgment by an immigration officer without a hearing, review or appeal.

Unfortunately, real people seeking our protection from death and persecution would be the victims of such proposals.

These modern refugees may come from different lands than our Founding Fathers who sought freedom, from different lands than more recent refugees fleeing potato famines in Ireland in the early part of the century, religious persecution in Germany during World War II, or Soviets fleeing communist oppression during the Cold War. Today's refugees are more likely to be Liberians fleeing their bloody civil war, Bosnians fleeing ethnic cleansing or Haitians seeking refuge from military dictators.

Reform of the asylum program is needed, but the baby does not have to be thrown out with the bath water.

First, terrorism is a security and border control issue, completely separate from the reform needed for asylum. Americans have been relatively insulated from the senseless acts of terrorism that have so dreadfully plagued Europe and the Middle East, but an unfortunate consequence of the modern world is that we must be a little more aware of our vulnerability to terrorist acts in the 1990s. However, we must realize that not one of the individuals accused of the World Trade Center bombing entered the United States through the asylum program, and the high level of government scrutiny of asylum seekers makes it a most unlikely route. There are six million tourist arrivals each year to the United States, and some one million illegal entries are said to be made at the Southern border. Better intelligence, more effective government scrutiny and law enforcement are the proper response to terrorist threats, not denying protection to persecuted refugees.

Second, the Justice Department must exercise leadership and effective management of the asylum program. At present, the program suffers because Justice Department resources are not managed to provide prompt adjudications of incoming cases and to deny benefits to non-refugees seeking to abuse the system.

A determined program of prompt adjudications and a responsible detention and release policy is what is needed to fix the asylum program without risking returning refugees to persecution. At the end of May, a group of non-governmental organizations completed a series of meetings with the INS by hammering out a package of reforms that would reduce to 60 days the time necessary for adjudication of asylum claims and would almost double the capacity to complete cases. These reforms must be quickly implemented and will go a long way toward getting control of the incoming cases.

Third, an expedited process should be used at airports and with shiploads of asylum-seekers that will promptly weed out the frivolous cases without undue risk of returning true refugees to persecution. The administration is studying a proposal that would provide expedited examinations by senior asylum officers all incoming claims. We must deter unscrupulous smugglers and asylum-abusers from making a mockery of our laws.

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