WASHINGTON — Responding to a rising national outcry over illegal immigration, the House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to add 600 agents to the nation's Border Patrol.
Acting on a proposal by California Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), the House decided on a 265-164 roll-call vote to override its Appropriations Committee and increase Border Patrol funds by $60 million for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
The size of the bipartisan majority--111 Democrats, 153 Republicans and one independent voted for the increase--means that the Senate is likely to accept the Border Patrol expansion, even though the Clinton Administration has called for cutting funding for the immigration control force.
"Congress is responding to the massive cost of welfare programs, medical programs and criminal justice programs that states and local governments are now paying as a result of illegal immigration," Hunter said after the vote.
The action amended a bill providing appropriations for the departments of state, justice and commerce. But the House put off final action on the funding measure until after its July 4 recess.
At the same time, legislation intended to address the severely backlogged and widely manipulated system for gaining political asylum was unveiled on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee on international law, immigration and refugees, proposed that non-citizens be deported immediately if they arrive without proper legal documents and cannot make a credible initial case that they are fleeing political persecution.
Mazzoli, joined by Reps. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said such controversial steps are necessary to avoid more drastic measures that would restrict legal immigration.
"The asylum system is broken," Mazzoli said at a news conference. "We have each year something like 100,000 applications. We have a backlog, basically, of 300,000 in the system. We have people obviously who are misusing this."
The legislation he proposed would provide for "expedited exclusion" of newcomers who arrive without proper legal documents at airports or other points of entry, unless the immigrant claims fear of persecution. It also would require Immigration and Naturalization Service agents at six major U.S. airports to screen out passengers seeking to enter the United States with fraudulent documents.
If a claim of persecution is made, an asylum officer would decide whether the claim is credible enough to allow the person to seek asylum status. If the claim is rejected, the individual would be deported immediately. One appeal would be allowed to a second, on-site asylum officer. Applicants for asylum would have to act within 30 days of arrival.
Under the current system, foreigners who enter the country with suspicious documents, without documents or without a credible claim to asylum are given a hearing and often can make repeated appeals if they lose.
Immigration rights advocates said airport hearings would deprive legitimate asylum seekers of adequate legal safeguards, including the right to counsel, and place a heavy burden on those unable to speak English.
"To do something at the airport . . . is going to exclude the genuine refugees," said Carol Wolchok, director of the American Bar Assn. Center for Immigration Law and Representation.
The debate in the House over Border Patrol funds also touched off strong emotions.
Some Latino lawmakers complained that immigrants from Mexico were being depicted as dope-smuggling welfare seekers. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), for example, said that he was saddened by the "monster image" used to malign people who were only seeking a better life.
But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey), who joined all but five of California's Democrats and all its Republicans in voting for the buildup of the Border Patrol, added: "Illegal immigration is sapping the economic strength of our nation, especially California."
Rep. Lynn Schenk (D-San Diego) said that the Border Patrol in San Diego is desperately short of funds, and Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) said that the problem requires a more comprehensive approach, including economic development in Mexico.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) told reporters after the vote: "We will never build enough fences or have enough policemen at the border to solve this (immigration) problem if the Mexican economy does not improve."
But Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) summed up the feelings of many House members when he said: "This is a hot-button issue. We can no longer wait for the Clinton Administration--we've got to get out front on it."
The five Democrats in California's delegation who voted against the Border Patrol buildup were George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland), Calvin Dooley (D-Visalia), Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) and Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco).