The Reagan Administration has proposed dramatic and controversial changes in the way political asylum is granted to thousands of refugees each year in the United States.
Among the changes would be the removal of immigration judges from asylum hearings and the use of "asylum officers" in their place, closing the hearings to the public and eliminating some courtroom rules that now govern the proceedings.
The proposals, which could take effect by year's end, would provide privacy for sensitive refugee matters and speed up processing of backlogged asylum applications, say officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who would administer the new rules.
Several immigration lawyers and civil rights groups are outraged by the proposals and promise a court challenge if they are put into effect. They charge that the new rules are unconstitutional and an attempt to place the asylum process under a veil of secrecy.
"This is the single greatest attack on the rights of refugees that has taken place in this country," said Jorge Gonzalez, a Los Angeles immigration attorney.
Another immigration attorney here, David L. Ross, said the proposed changes signal "a shift in how the Administration processes asylum applications from a trend toward more applications granted to one of denying more applications."
INS officials said such concerns are unfounded.
"What we are setting up is a maximum opportunity for the refugee," said Ralph B. Thomas, the INS deputy assistant commissioner for refugee asylum and parole. "And we're designing a system so that (refugees) will get a hearing before the best-informed individual they could possibly get." The proposals, he said, would allow the INS "to get to cases rapidly."
There are about 80,000 political asylum cases pending around the country, INS records show. Of these, about 64,000 are Cuban applications. Los Angeles, a major center for non-Cuban refugees seeking asylum, had a backlog of more than 5,600 cases at the end of September, more than half from Central America, according to INS figures.
In Los Angeles, the processing of an asylum application from filing to an initial decision can take as long as six months, according to immigration attorneys. If the application is denied, an appeal to an immigration judge can take another six months, they said.
This is not the first time the process of granting political asylum has come under fire.
Immigration lawyers and Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, have charged that granting asylum is a highly politicized decision with refugee applications from some countries favored over others.
At a Los Angeles news conference last month, Amnesty International's refugee coordinator, Nicholas J. Rizza, produced figures showing that between June, 1983, and September, 1986, only 2.6% of political asylum refugees from El Salvador and 0.9% of Guatemala's refugees were granted permission to remain in the United States.
In contrast, he said, the INS asylum approval rate for Eastern European refugees has ranged from 32% (Hungary) to 51% (Romania).
Increasingly, Rizza charged, even though human rights violations have "been as bad as it can get in those two countries (El Salvador and Guatemala)," Washington has treated applications from refugees from there "as frivolous" or "manifestly unfounded."
INS officials deny that application approvals are linked to the Administration's foreign policy toward various countries, and say they consider each application on a case-by-case basis.
Thomas of the INS said the agency hopes to implement the proposals by the end of the year. They were published without publicity in the Federal Register last August and the public comment period on them ends this month. No congressional approval is required, although lawmakers could overturn the regulations once they take effect.
Removing immigration judges from the process greatly concerns lawyers because the judges are independent administrative hearing officers who report to the Office of the Immigration Judge in Falls Church, Va., not to the INS. Both the INS and the judges work under the auspices of the Justice Department.
"It's disturbing when you have the agency, the INS, which is responsible for enforcement also responsible for examining asylum requests," said Arthur Helton, an official with the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
With INS officials deciding asylum cases without recourse to an immigration judge, he said, the process "will be more subject to the political vagaries of the moment."
Specifically, the plan calls for eliminating the role the nation's 65 immigration judges currently play in deciding political asylum applications, a system set up under the Refugee Act of 1980.