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Clinton Asks New Rules on Asylum : Immigration: President would close loopholes by speeding up processing of claims by those seeking refuge. Hundreds of agents would be added to Border Patrol.


WASHINGTON — Saying that the nation must regain control over illegal immigration if it is to keep its tradition of legal immigration, President Clinton on Tuesday proposed procedures to close loopholes in U.S. asylum laws and requested several hundred additional Border Patrol agents for the Southwest.

"Our borders leak like a sieve," Clinton said, adding that abuses of current laws "cannot be permitted to continue." But, he said: "The solution to the problem of illegal immigration is not simply to close our borders."

Instead, Clinton's proposals would streamline procedures that currently allow perhaps tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to file for asylum hearings and then disappear before the hearings take place.

Key members of Congress, including both of California's senators, praised the changes as a step toward regaining control of the asylum system. But civil liberties groups warned that the changes could end up punishing the innocent while providing no real improvement in ferreting out those who seek to enter the country fraudulently.

Members of the Congress' Hispanic Caucus also expressed reservations. "We want to be absolutely certain that we do not compromise fair consideration of asylum requests," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), the caucus chairman. "For those fleeing war and repressive governments, receiving asylum is a life-and-death decision."

Clinton's move--his second major announcement on immigration policy this summer--comes after months of rising concern about immigration problems, particularly in California. White House officials have been stunned by the number of questions involving immigration that Clinton has received from Californians during his visits to the state since the election and from elected officials visiting Washington.

The concerns heightened nationwide after the World Trade Center bombing, which focused attention on potential terrorists entering the country illegally, and after the recent and highly publicized incidents of ships attempting to smuggle Chinese immigrants into the country.

The heart of Clinton's plan involves the way that the nation handles asylum claims. Currently, those claims come up in two different ways. In roughly 80,000 cases a year, a person already in the country--either illegally or on a legal but temporary status, such as a student or tourist visa--comes forward and asks U.S. officials for political asylum.

The process for handling those claims has been a huge embarrassment for the government almost since the current laws were put in place in 1980. The Immigration and Naturalization Service currently has a backlog of 250,000 asylum applications and officials now concede that international politics often have heavily influenced the way claims are judged.

The Administration wants to combat the backlog by increasing the number of hearing officers and by streamlining the cumbersome, four-step hearing process.

"The goal is to provide one good hearing before one well-trained person" for each applicant, an Administration official said.

In the second type of case--numbering about 30,000 each year--officials arrest a person who then raises an asylum claim as a defense. At New York's Kennedy International Airport, some 15,000 people raised such claims between Oct. 1 of last year and March 31. The government detains only a fraction of those people, who often wait as long as four months before their claims are heard. Many of the rest, officials concede, simply disappear while the bureaucracy tries to process their cases.

The Administration's proposal would attempt to deal with that problem by providing an immediate hearing subject to an immediate appeal, all handled by Justice Department and INS lawyers with virtually no review by courts. Officials said that their goal is to resolve all claims--including the appeals--within 10 days. All applicants would be detained in the meantime.

Lawyers who represent asylum applicants were quick to object that the new procedures will turn into a sham. "You get this very quick interview without any realistic opportunity to get representation or prepare, then a fast appeal and then you're gone forever," said Lucas Guttentag of the American Civil Liberties Union.

With bills pending in Congress aimed at speeding up the asylum process, Congress seemed unlikely to worry much about such complaints.

To handle the new hearings--and expand other key parts of the system--the Administration is asking for $82 million in new funds for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The Administration wants another $90 million to expand the Border Patrol and to improve the technology currently used to process visa requests for those who want to enter the country.

The Border Patrol money would pay for as many as 600 new agents, most of whom would be deployed to the border with Mexico.

Administration officials blame clumsy and outdated visa screening procedures for allowing potentially dangerous immigrants to slip into the country--most notably the recent case of Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, who obtained a visa and entered the United States despite information linking him to terrorist groups.

Roughly half the money needed would be raised by increasing the fees that the Immigration and Naturalization Service charges for inspections and processing applications and by increasing the fees that the State Department charges foreigners requesting visas.

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