The House Wednesday approved legislation that broadens the right of “safe haven” in the United States for illegal aliens fleeing persecution, natural disaster and other life-threatening dangers in their own countries.
On a bipartisan voice vote, members passed a bill that would permit the attorney general to grant an extended visa to virtually all refugees from nations that are determined to be in turmoil, as defined by strict criteria.
House members also approved a law allocating 45,000 additional visas over the next three years to nations--including many European countries--whose rate of immigration has lagged behind that of Asian and Latin American countries.
The two bills now go to the Senate, where sponsors expect quick approval. So far, the Reagan Administration has taken no position on the legislation.
Currently, the Justice Department grants temporary visa status to illegal aliens on a case-by-case basis. These persons must provide personal evidence that they would face great danger if forced to return to their countries.
No Reliable Records
The policy, which has been in effect since 1977, has granted such status to many refugees from Ethiopia, Uganda, Afghanistan, Poland and Nicaragua. There are no reliable records of how many individuals have been granted these visas, according to a congressional report.
Critics charged Wednesday that the Reagan Administration has granted extended visas to victims of persecution in Nicaragua, whose Sandinista government is opposed by the Administration, but not to refugees from war-torn El Salvador, whose government has U.S. support. They also contend that the present practice of granting extended visas to refugees is not guided by precise legal standards.
“We have to get away from the present law where a refugee must show a personalized fear, a personal basis that they are subject to persecution,” said Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), who helped develop the bill. “There has to be a broader standard, one that treats victims across the board with the same standards.”
Mazzoli also criticized the Justice Department for making such visa determinations “by internal regulation . . . often with no public justification or explanation for its actions.”
Under the proposed legislation, the attorney general would be permitted to grant an indefinite visa to illegal aliens if they have fled a country in which there is an ongoing armed conflict and in which their personal safety would be in danger.
In addition, the visa could be granted if there has been an environmental disaster in the country, causing a major but temporary disruption of living conditions. Such disasters could include floods, earthquakes, drought or an epidemic.
A key change is that the government would not consider strictly personal accounts from refugees on a case-by-case basis, but would instead gauge conditions in their country before deciding to grant a visa, sponsors said.
More important, the Justice Department would take a global view of persecution and no longer single out a mere handful of countries for benefits, said Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.).
Wants ‘Evenhanded Approach’
“Designating countries like Poland or Ethiopia . . . and eliminating other countries was clearly the wrong approach,” he said. “We have needed a more evenhanded approach, and that’s what we’ve got with this bill.”
The other bill passed on voice vote would change the rules that determine how many people will be allowed to emigrate to the United States from particular countries. Those rules, adopted in 1965, have “adversely” affected the rate of emigration from certain nations, many of them in Europe, sponsors said.
A key reason was that the 1965 rules gave priority to immigrants who already have family members living in this country, said Mazzoli. As a result, the number of immigrants from members of extended families in Asian and Latin American nations grew faster than the number of immigrants from many western nations, many of whom apply for visas as individuals.
The legislation would provide 45,000 visas over the next three years to some 37 countries that have been designated by the State Department as being adversely affected. In addition, it would create a pilot program offering an additional 10,000 visas in 1989 and 1990 to qualified applicants of “under-represented” countries.
Those nations, which received less than 5,000 visas this year, include all the countries of the world, except China, Taiwan, Colombia, Dominican Republic, India, Jamaica, Korea, Mexico, Philippines, Great Britain, Guyana and Haiti.