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Officials Debate Ways to Reduce Influx of Aliens

February 05, 1989|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The federal government, in a quandary over how to handle the massive influx of Central Americans seeking political asylum, is debating a range of approaches, including detention centers, Bush Administration sources said Saturday.

One source said that idea, which drew immediate criticism from immigrant advocates, is at the "conservative end of the scale." At the "liberal end," officials within the Justice Department are advocating a special status called extended voluntary departure that would allow the immigrants to remain in this country until the situations in their homelands become stable.

Stemming Immigrant Flow

Also, officials said, the Administration is casting about for ways to press Mexican officials to help stem the flow of undocumented immigrants through Mexico en route to the United States.

"We're looking for Mexican help to cut them off," said an Administration official, referring to the Central American immigrants. However, the official acknowledged that this tack runs the risk of angering Mexicans who might view it as intervention.

The other possible solutions also are fraught with problems, making the situation a proverbial political mine field for the new Administration. Meanwhile, a federal judge's order last week gives the government until Feb. 20 to come up with a way to handle the continuing flow of immigrants.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service reports that since July, 30,000 Central Americans--about half of them Nicaraguans--have poured across the border into Texas. Activists say the focus on Texas is causing immigrants to turn increasingly to other routes. Once in the country, most of the immigrants disperse to Florida and California, with a sizable number settling here in the nation's capital.

What the Administration will do to handle the continuing influx "is still up in the air," said Loye Miller, director of public affairs at the Justice Department. "It's a damn tough problem."

For the last seven months, immigrants from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have fled their homelands in increasing numbers, joining hundreds of thousands already here. They enter this country mainly through South Texas and seek political asylum on grounds that they have a "well-founded fear" of persecution in their war-torn home countries.

Judge Stays INS Rule

The INS, asserting that almost all such claims from Central Americans are frivolous, last December issued rules that made the immigrants wait at the point of entry while their claims were processed. In Brownsville, Tex., last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela issued a 20-day stay of the INS rule, making it possible for the immigrants to apply for asylum any place in the nation and avoid the possibility of being trapped in squalid camps in South Texas.

At the same time, the judge indicated that he is likely to allow the INS to begin holding immigrants in South Texas when the order expires in less than three weeks, saying the INS was within the law in issuing the rule last December.

Even if the judge sides with them, INS officials realize they must find a way to handle the huge numbers of immigrants who would be concentrated in the Brownsville area.

"Putting up some kind of detention centers (in the border areas) addresses the issue of meeting their human needs," one Administration official said.

Seen Violating Spirit of Law

But the lingering criticism of the federal policy that put Cuban and Haitian immigrants in such centers after their arrival in 1980 weighs heavily against the plan. "The notion of alien detention centers on U.S. soil is disturbing because it violates the spirit if not the letter of the Refugee Act of 1980," said Wade Henderson, associate director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Carmen Monico, national coordinator of the Central American Refugee Committees, said activists would "start a campaign" to prevent the INS from operating the centers. "We don't need more detention centers," she said. "We need a fair refugee act, including every consideration of extended voluntary departure."

Over the years, this status, granted at the President's discretion, has been applied to numerous countries deemed unstable and unsafe, revoking it when conditions return to normal. Currently, Ethiopians, Poles and Afghans are allowed to stay in the United States under this policy.

Faces Attack From Right

However, the conservative Bush Administration, like Ronald Reagan's before it, faces a barrage of criticism from the right if it offers refuge to Salvadorans--that would be perceived as an acknowledgement that the Salvadoran government, a U.S. ally, is oppressive. (In 1987, then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III took steps to make it easier for Nicaraguans to obtain refugee status, but immigrant advocates say the move was only "symbolic.")

The Administration's dilemma has given new hope to advocates of congressional legislation that would halt deportations of Salvadorans and Nicaraguans for 18 months while the government studies conditions that led to their immigration.

Meanwhile, for President Bush, there seems no easy way out of a sticky situation. He strains Texas tempers and resources if the immigrants are held there. But if they are allowed to move on to Miami and Los Angeles, Floridians and Californians complain.

"Bush has a tremendous following in Florida, and he's from Texas," said an Administration official, summing up Bush's geopolitical problem.

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