WASHINGTON — A new General Accounting Office study shows that Central Americans are far more likely to be refused asylum than immigrants from other countries, even when their claims are similar.
Supporters of asylum for Central Americans cited the report Tuesday as proof that the Reagan Administration uses asylum policy as an unfair political tool--an assertion that the Immigration and Naturalization Service immediately disputed.
The report is "very damning to the Administration," said James P. McGovern, legislative assistant to Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), who is sponsoring a bill providing temporary asylum for all Central Americans now in the country, not only those covered under the massive immigration revision legislation passed by Congress last week.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who requested the GAO study, said he was "very troubled" by the findings and vowed to work in the next congressional session "to determine the appropriate response to these disturbing revelations."
In and out of Congress, an intense battle was waged during the last session on behalf of Central Americans seeking asylum, about 500,000 of whom are Salvadorans, by far the largest subgroup. The battle will resume when Congress returns next year, and leaders in both chambers have promised Moakley that his legislation will be given high priority.
The Moakley bill passed the House but was attached and then deleted from the immigration measure in the waning days of the session because it jeopardized passage of the historic legislation.
The measure passed by Congress would provide asylum for immigrants who arrived in the United States before January, 1982. Moakley's bill would also allow Central Americans who came to this country after 1982 to remain for about two years while the U.S. government studies the conditions that led to their immigration.
Asylum for those fleeing the war-ravaged region "remains one of the unfinished items of business" in immigration overhaul, said Wade J. Henderson, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The GAO report, Henderson said, is "powerful evidence that the Reagan Administration manipulates the asylum process to achieve foreign policy objectives."
The study found that few people who were denied asylum were deported. Of 21,033 aliens denied asylum, only 312 were sent back to their native countries. Of the four nationalities studied, only Salvadorans were returned.
Most of those who are not deported remain in this country without legal status and could be subjected to deportation proceedings at any time.
To qualify for refugee status under current immigration law, a person must have a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.
The GAO study, made public last week through a largely unnoticed entry in the Congressional Record, compares asylum requests from the four countries that accounted for 82% of the number of cases processed by the INS in fiscal 1984: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran and Poland.
Analyzing 1,450 files of asylum applicants, the GAO found that, overall, "approval rates for El Salvador (2%) and Nicaragua (7%) were many times lower than approval rates from Poland (49%) and Iran (66%). The worldwide approval rate was 24%."
And the discrepancy did not change when applicants cited torture, arrest or imprisonment as support for their asylum claims. Four percent of the Salvadorans and 15% of the Nicaraguans were approved after claiming severe mistreatment, while the approval figures were 80% for Poles and 64% for Iranians who made similar claims.
The report also showed that the State Department exerted what critics called an unfairly heavy influence on whether asylum applications were approved. Of 32,426 applications worldwide, the Justice Department--which is the parent agency of the INS--agreed with State Department advisory opinions 96% of the time.
When there was disagreement, the Justice Department changed its opinion to agree with the State Department in 100% of the Salvadoran cases and 98% of the Nicaraguan cases. The Justice Department changed 83% of the time on Polish immigrants and 78% of the time on Iranian cases.
Foreign Policy Cited
Citing these figures, Specter charged that the process is controlled by the State Department "and, thereby, subject to political pressures based on foreign policy concerns."
At the INS, spokesman Duke Austin asserted that judgment of the fairness of refugee policy should depend on whether "we're sending people back who are being persecuted. There's no evidence of that."
As to the dramatically lower percentages of Central Americans granted refugee status, Austin said that the asylum process is "not a quota system. It's based on whether a person can show persecution."