Pay-as-you-go political asylum

February 24, 1994

College students who have had to pay fees to apply for financial aid will understand. The Immigration and Naturalization Service wants to charge $130 for anyone applying for political asylum. This should reduce demand volume. It should insure a more conservative, respectable type of political refugee.

No doubt fearing ridicule, Attorney General Janet Reno immediately backtracked on the INS proposal to this extent: It would waive the fee for anyone who can't pay. What, then, is it for?

A much more meaningful INS proposal would deny a work permit for six months to political asylum applicants, instead of giving it immediately to anyone who has been instructed on how to apply. Only political refugees who had means or relatives here to support them for a half-year could make it. Or so goes the theory.

However much these proposals mock the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, as long as they have $130 and can sponge on in-laws for six months . . ."), the nation and Ms. Reno have a problem. She announced a $540.5 million plan to add a thousand INS agents to the Mexican border, and -- things being what they are on the budget side -- needs a way to pay for it. INS is wallowing under a backlog of 300,000 political asylum applications and may never get around to judging some of them.

What is not in dispute is that the nation has a heritage of granting political asylum that made it great. Also not in dispute is that this heritage is abused by the sharks and packagers and smugglers of human contraband who, for a steep price in the country of origin, instruct would-be immigrants on how to apply for political asylum and short-cut the system.

The INS proposals won't end abuse of the system. The fee is silly. Smugglers will instruct refugees on how to apply for a waiver. The postponement of a work permit could inflict a real hardship and may dissuade some immigrants who have no legitimate claim for admittance here. But charging a fee for applying for college financial aid never stopped people from applying, and charging a fee won't stop refugees from applying for political asylum. Especially if she is offering to waive the fee on demand, Ms. Reno better have a fall-back proposal for paying for those 1,000 new agents on the Rio Grande.

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