Immigration policy in dispute Court tests: New laws for summary deportation and denial of benefits spur controversy.

April 02, 1997

AS THE NATION braces for one of its toughest crackdowns ever on illegal immigrants and on the benefits available to legal aliens, court challenges are predictably under way. One of the first erupted with an April 1 deadline, as organizations seeking to protect would-be newcomers convinced a federal judge that the government had goofed in not giving 30-days notice of new procedures for summary deportations. But he was quickly reversed by an appeals court apparently influenced by government warnings of "chaos."

This is just the beginning. Having failed to set up a roadblock on a technicality, pro-immigrant groups are expected to protest the law itself, which that gives the Immigration and Naturalization Service expanded powers to block the entry of those without proper documents.

One key issue is asylum for those claiming to be political refugees. Their defenders complain INS officials are not required to notify detained persons of their rights. The INS says it has every intention of so doing.

Legal wrangling over the new restrictions on illegal immigrants coincides with wider disputes over provisions in the new welfare reform law to deny food stamps and other benefits to legal immigrants who have not satisfied work requirements or obtained citizenship.

Courts tests are just the most obvious manifestation of a growing debate over how this nation of immigrants is to reconcile its tradition of diversity and its need for skilled foreigners with the peculiar problems of states supporting large numbers of unskilled and indigent aliens.

Congress, last year, watered down a Draconian attempt to limit immigration and curtail the number of political refugees entitled to asylum. But even as it attempted to keep an open door, it responded to popular demand for barriers to illegal emigres by doubling the number of border patrol agents, tightening requirements for tamper-free documents and approving the summary deportation rules now in dispute.

Clearly, the immigration question is one that will have to be raised again and again since it goes to the heart of what this country is all about. It will require a careful balancing of idealism and realism, of weighing the benefits of talented newcomers craved by high-tech industries with the liabilities of localities overrun with non-productive newcomers. It is not a subject for demagogy or arbitrariness, although it is all too vulnerable to both.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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