How to Bar Unwanted Immigrants

August 02, 1993

Public perceptions that the country is being overrun by immigrants explain the strong bipartisan support for President Clinton's tough proposals to fix a flawed asylum system and beef up patrols along the Mexican border.

These perceptions may be exaggerated or dead wrong but the political pressures they unleash can hardly be overestimated. For a Democratic president to favor a crackdown on immigration goes against tradition. For the two Democratic senators from California and a Republican senator from New York to embrace his action shows how much the Mexican tide, the spectacle of Chinese boatpeople landing on a New York beach and the bombing of the World Trade Center affects the current mood.

The Clinton bill is likely to sweep through Congress despite misgivings by civil liberties groups fearful of summary justice. Indeed, it may spark moves for more fundamental action, particularly requirements for a counterfeit-proof national worker identification card despite traditional American distrust of government intrusion. Doris Meissner, the commissioner-designate for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has said "the whole document business has to be reformed" -- though she doesn't know "if we have the stomach for it."

What the nation clearly has the stomach for is a speed-up in handling refugees claiming to be victims of political persecution who come here without prior authorization or on temporary visas and then ask for asylum. At present, the system permits four rounds of hearings often taking as long as 18 months -- a period permitting many asylum-seekers to find jobs and disappear into the population.

INS asylum officers are overwhelmed with a backlog of 275,000 cases. Mr. Clinton proposes that would-be refugees be limited to one good hearing by an experienced government official, who would have authority to order expedited expulsion if he feels asylum is unwarranted. Some of those who are already in the country could appeal on a accelerated timetable to the Department of Justice.

In terms of numbers, the hordes of Mexicans crossing into the United States to seek work far surpass Islamic terrorists or the Chinese boat people who have been making headlines. In dealing with the first group, Mr. Clinton largely confines his efforts to putting 600 more Border Patrol officers in place. As for suspected terrorists, he proposes pre-boarding checks in foreign airports and, more to the point, almost immediate deportation for those whose asylum claims are judged fraudulent. To discourage illegal entry from everywhere, including China, the president would apply stringent anti-racketeering laws to smugglers who exploit poor people desperate to come to America.

All these Clinton initiatives deal with the symptoms of unwanted immigration. The proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, with its promise of raising Mexican living standards, could represent a start in dealing with the causes.

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