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U.S. Proposes Curbs on Bogus Asylum Claims

March 30, 1994|PAUL HOUSTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration proposed broad changes in the nation's refugee asylum system Tuesday to curb a growing number of bogus claims while speeding up approval of immigrants genuinely fleeing political, religious or ethnic oppression.

The Administration's revisions, which drew immediate criticism from private refugee groups, would impose a filing fee on asylum seekers and would force many applicants to wait twice as long for temporary work permits.

The government also would at least double the number of immigration judges and asylum officers assigned to handle the exploding caseload.

"We want a balanced system that embodies both compassion and control," said Doris M. Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Under the current system, many applicants who have no legitimate claim for asylum file claims so that they can obtain temporary work permits and remain in the country while their cases are reviewed--a process that currently averages 18 to 24 months. Those applying for asylum can obtain work authorization in 90 days. That period would be expanded to as long as 180 days under the new procedures.

Several private refugee groups protested that the proposed filing fee of $130 and the recommended delay for work permits would unfairly penalize legitimate asylum-seekers.

"People who come here have to have some way to exist," said Father Richard Ryscavage, head of migration and refugee services for the U.S. Catholic Conference. "Having to wait up to 180 days for work will create a serious burden on the community."

The problem is mushrooming, all agree. Asylum applications nearly tripled to 150,386 last year from 56,000 in 1991 and the backlog of unprocessed cases has grown to more than 370,000.

"The problem we have faced in recent years," Meissner said at a news conference, "is that people with no legitimate claim to asylum are applying in record numbers, some brought by smugglers, some using fake documents and some overstaying the visas granted to them as visitors."

She said that many applications for asylum contain virtually identical information and are purchased by applicants to obtain a work permit.

"Unfortunately, those abusing the system have captured public attention and exacerbated a large application backlog that puts legitimate asylum-seekers at a severe disadvantage," she said. The proposed changes will be published this week in the Federal Register, with a final version expected by the summer.

The new INS system, in the first year or so, would focus only on new applications. Clearly meritorious cases would be approved within 60 days while questionable applications would take up to six months. Work permits would be granted only after a case was resolved.

Asylum applicants would have to pay a $130 filing fee unless they showed that they could not afford it. Meissner said that each application costs an estimated $615 to process. "We believe it is only fair to apply some of the costs of asylum adjudication to the people who benefit from it," she said.

Critics, however, said that obtaining a waiver for the filing fee could be difficult and could add to the backlog of cases.

The INS is asking Congress for $64 million in fiscal 1995 to more than double the number of asylum officers, to 334 from 150. The parent Justice Department also is expected to double the number of immigration judges, to 170 from 85.

In addition, the immigration service will begin fingerprinting asylum applicants to eliminate duplicate applications in different U.S. cities under different names.

Refugee organizations critical of the new filing fee and the new waiting period for work permits include the Catholic Conference, the U.S. Committee for Refugees, the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. and the Open Society Institute.

Asylum Leaders

The top 25 nationalities of asylum applicants make up 88% of the 150,386 applications filed during fiscal year 1993. The leading nationalities:

Rank Country Applicants 1. Guatemala 34,681 2. El Salvador 15,362 3. China 14,354 4. Haiti 11,377 5. Mexico 6,192 6. India 5,902 7. Pakistan 4,653 8. Nicaragua 4,286 9. Philippines 4,107 10. Bangladesh 3,759 11. Russia 3,427 12. Peru 3,244 13. Cuba 3,010 14. Honduras 2,836 15. Yugoslavia 2,425 16. Nigeria 1,993 17. Romania 1,591 18. Ghana 1,572 19. Ethiopia 1,383 20. Colombia 1,315 21. Liberia 1,192 22. Poland 1,059 23. Ukraine 1,027 24. Armenia 938 25. Syria 872

Source: Immigation and Naturalization Service

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