In a last-minute about-face, the Reagan Administration has dropped a proposal that would have barred those seeking political asylum from arguing their cases in open court, officials disclosed Tuesday.
The Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service had suggested the changes in an effort to expedite thousands of pending asylum cases and to protect applicants from potential reprisals. But the plan met with protests from civil rights groups who said it would violate constitutional protections in the courtroom.
The Justice Department's director of asylum policy, Roger Pilon, said that officials "reflected" upon the protests, and then decided to drop the plan.
The protests, Pilon said, were "not without merit. . . . We really didn't focus on this issue until the criticism prompted us to think about it. . . . It was plain that there was much to be said for the adversarial process."
Under current law, if a political asylum applicant is turned down by the INS, a new application can be made before an immigration judge, a hearing officer who is independent of the immigration agency. The Administration plan would have eliminated the immigration judge's role and, instead, have allowed a new corps of asylum officers to make the decision on whether to grant asylum during a private hearing.
Disclosed at Meeting
The Administration's change of heart was disclosed during a one-hour meeting at the Justice Department attended by Pilon, other immigration officials and immigrants' rights representatives.
According to those who attended the meeting, the decision to shelve the plan was made by Arnold Burns, the deputy attorney general. Burns could not be reached for comment.
Tuesday was the last day for public comment on the Administration package, which was published last August in the Federal Register. The next step would have been to publish final proposals with the idea of putting them into effect by the end of this year.
Opponents of the proposal were elated by Tuesday's development.
"We think it's a very significant development," said Warren Leiden, executive director of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Assn., a national group with 2,700 members. "In a contested (political asylum) case, the best way to find the truth," he said, is in an open adversarial setting before an immigration judge.
An official of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Arthur Helton, said the major concern was the "inherent conflict of interest" that the proposal would have created--that is, having the agency responsible for immigration law enforcement, the INS, also examining asylum requests, instead of independent immigration judges.
"The immigration judges provide an important check against arbitrary and abusive decision-making by the immigration authorities and their proposed removal would take away that protection," Helton said.
Helton speculated that the plan had been a product of conservative pressure on the Justice Department to change the asylum process. "There's a lot of pressure from the right to assure asylum for those who fled from Communist or Communist-dominated regimes like those in Eastern Europe and in Nicaragua," he said.
Both Leiden and Helton attended Tuesday's Justice Department meeting.
The main point of the Administration's lengthy proposal was to expedite about 80,000 political asylum cases pending around the country. Los Angeles had a backlog of about 5,600 such cases at the end of September, more than half from Central America, according to INS figures.
A top INS official, Ralph Thomas, who also attended Tuesday's session, had contended that the original idea was to establish more professionalism in the political asylum process through the creation of asylum officers. Additionally, he and other INS officials had declared that a private hearing would be "humanitarian" because it would protect applicants from any reprisals back home.
Thomas, INS deputy assistant commissioner for refugee asylum and parole, said he still thinks highly of the original plan.
"We would not have disturbed . . . due process," he said. "I'm not sure what is served by having a cheering section (in the courtroom) which tended to sway the judge."