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No Shining Example

December 25, 1987

In the final act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, each signatory, including the United States, agreed to "deal with applications in a positive and humanitarian spirit" on the subject of family reunification. Since then the American government, including Congress, has made much of the failures of the Soviet Union to implement faithfully that part of the accord.

Now, looking at another problem, a problem largely focused on Latin America, Congress has dismissed the importance of family reunification and has left vulnerable to deportation the spouses and children of persons qualifying for permanent residence under the amnesty provisions of the new immigration law. That places in jeopardy the amnesty program itself.

The explanation for this extraordinary action is that granting family reunification would give those under the amnesty program an advantage over those who migrated under normal immigration provisions but are waiting for family members to qualify for entry. It can be a long wait. For those coming from Mexico, which now has the longest list, the wait is 10 years.

We are not impressed with this argument of fairness. Two wrongs do not make a right. Furthermore, there is a distinction to be made. The families under the amnesty program are already present in the United States, already united, albeit without the sanction of law. The others with kin on the waiting list were married after they obtained immigrant status with the full knowledge that their spouses and children faced the delay.

Congress should be remedying both problems, not ducking a basic human-rights issue. If there is fear that the amnesty program would be exploited, appropriate limits could be established to protect at least the family units that existed at the time the law was enacted a year ago.

In the meantime, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has promised compassion. The new immigration law itself prohibits the pursuit of kin who are undocumented aliens. The INS reports that it has no intention of deporting the spouses and children, although that would be possible in the event of a workplace arrest. In other words, the next of kin would be no worse off than they are now. And, when the amnesty is granted, they will become eligible for permanent status, even if that means waiting 10 years for their turn to come.

The commitment to compassion is appropriate. But the uncertainty that faces these families until their immigrant status is finally approved is unjust. Congress should eliminate the risk of deportation even as it moves to accelerate the process of family reunification for all immigrants, practicing a principle long preached to Moscow.

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