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Chaos at the Border

The Reagan Administration is trying to find bureaucratic solutions to the problems posed by the influx of refugees from Central America into this country, but its efforts are likely to make the situation even worse.

Responding to a dramatic increase in the number of applications for political asylum by Central American refugees in south Texas, officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have announced changes in the way the agency handles the applications. The number of asylum applications in the INS office in Harlingen, Tex., has risen from 500 per week to 2,000 per week in the last five months. The numbers confirm what residents of south Texas have known for some time--that refugees from war-torn El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua are using the Rio Grande Valley as their main point of entry into the United States.

The volume of applications is overwhelming the INS staff in Harlingen, so INS officials in Washington announced that they will send extra INS examiners to Texas to expedite asylum requests, as well as additional Border Patrol agents to limit illegal border crossings there. The INS also said that the new examiners will be tougher in requiring that refugees prove a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their homeland, as U.S. immigration law requires of asylum-seekers.

Previously the INS had been strictly enforcing asylum regulations in cases involving refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, but not Nicaragua--where the Administration has been sponsoring a covert war against a Sandinista government that it considers unfriendly. Nicaraguans were allowed to travel anywhere in the United States, and even work, while their asylum applications were pending. That will change now, according to spokesmen for the INS. Nicaraguans who cannot prove that they face persecution will be liable for expulsion from the United States. And, while they await a decision on their request, they must remain in the district in which they applied for asylum.

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This last point is understandably causing a great deal of concern in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest regions of the United States. Local government officials there say that they can barely provide for the needs of their own citizens, much less absorb the costs of providing for the shelter and safety of a refugee population estimated at 5,000 and likely to grow under the new INS policy.

For Nicaraguans the timing of these changes could not be worse. President Reagan’s Contra war failed to oust the Sandinistas, but has left Nicaragua devastated. It should surprise no one that people there are now heading across Mexico for the nearest country where they can find work and safety. As Reagan’s surrogate Contra fighters flee the battlefield, they are likely to increase the flow of refugees.

A better solution to this human tragedy is one that the Administration has stubbornly refused to apply in dealing with Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees--a special immigration status that would allow these desperate people to remain in this country legally until the turmoil in their homelands ends. Congress, under the leadership of Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), has tried to enact legislation that would grant Central American refugees this special status, but the bills have failed due to opposition by the Reagan White House. The 101st Congress should try again. And President-elect George Bush should extend his promise of a “kinder, gentler nation” to Central Americans by supporting it.


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