WASHINGTON — President Reagan, questioning whether the United States has "come to a point in which we just plain can't handle" the continuing waves of immigrants, said Wednesday that this country should "collaborate with our allies" on resettling refugees elsewhere.
In an interview with The Times and six other newspapers, Reagan said that it may be necessary to "redirect refugees to other countries that are willing to take them," an idea immediately challenged by immigration experts who said that other countries already are handling more than their share of refugees.
The President's comments come amid an explosion of immigrants fleeing poverty and strife in Latin America, making their way to American cities where social services and resettlement operations are already overburdened. At the same time, thousands of Soviet citizens and Indochinese are trying to leave their homelands, many in search of homes in this country.
In the 30-minute interview in the Oval Office, Reagan appeared relaxed and comfortable, discussing a wide range of issues, including U.S.-Soviet relations, Central America, U.S. hostages, congressional redistricting and even his acting career in Hollywood, asserting that it prepared him for the presidency.
He also suggested that, if Gen. Manuel A. Noriega remains in power in Panama, this country should "look at" whether to abide by the treaty requiring the United States to turn over the canal to Panama by the year 2000.
Reagan, who leaves office Friday after waging an unsuccessful effort to oust Noriega, said that there is "no question about his totalitarianism," adding that "I don't think there is any way to escape the fact that he is a part of the drug fraternity."
Thus, he said, the question of whether to abide by the treaty "is something that should be taken into consideration by whoever is in charge at that time."
In the last year, Administration officials have shied away from direct threats to abrogate the treaty to increase pressure on Noriega.
The President vigorously defended his remarkable change of attitude toward the Soviet Union and the new arms control treaty between the two nations, saying, "It was the right thing to do." As he has done repeatedly, Reagan credited his policy of "peace through strength" with bringing the Soviets to the bargaining table.
Conscious that the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with the Soviets will play a part in determining how history judges his presidency, Reagan, who early in his presidency called the Soviet Union "the evil empire," said that conservative critics of his Soviet initiative are "wrong because . . . I'm motivated by deeds, not just words. And the deeds (by the Soviets) have been there."
He asserted that the United States is able to verify Soviet compliance with arms treaties "to an extent that I don't think anyone had ever dreamed would have been possible," largely because of the U.S. military personnel allowed to make inspections in the Soviet Union.
Referring to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, with whom he has met five times since the Soviet leader assumed power in 1985, Reagan said: "Have I embraced him too quickly? What harm has been done? He's reduced his forces. We have the first treaty that the Soviets have ever signed in which they agreed to destroy weapons they already had."
Reagan also defended his Administration's efforts to free the nine Americans still held hostage in the Middle East, saying that rescue missions might have endangered their lives and that "we thought there was a better chance (to free the hostages) with all of the various things" the Administration tried. "I don't know what more we could have done," Reagan said, calling hostage-taking "one of the cruelest, most cowardly, barbaric things that any group of people can do."
Asserting that the Americans' captivity "preys heavily on me," the President said: "I hope and pray, if it can't be us, that it can soon be the next Administration that will see them come home."
Discussing immigrants, Reagan repeatedly called for compassion for refugees, saying that "we must do everything we can to offer humane treatment" to them. They "had a special love for freedom and a courage to uproot themselves, leave family and friends and come to this country to start a new life. And I still believe that this country should offer that," he said.
The President said he wondered, however, " . . . do we come to a point in which we just plain can't handle them?" And he said: "I think not only should we welcome them, but I think there is an area where we should also collaborate with our allies and other democracies to make sure that everybody is doing their bit in this--that maybe we're going to have to redirect refugees to other countries that are also willing to take them."
Refugee Quota Set