The federal government, trying to discourage "frivolous" claims for political asylum, Monday announced plans to detain Central Americans entering the United States in southern Texas and deport them quickly if they fail to qualify for refugee status.
Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Alan C. Nelson said the immigrants, who have fled their often war-torn homelands by the thousands and poured into this country during recent months, will be held in South Texas facilities resembling work camps. More centers will be built if needed, he told a news conference in Brownsville, Tex.
INS Doubts Motives
INS officials maintain that most of the Central Americans are fleeing from poverty and do not qualify for asylum from persecution.
"We intend to send a strong signal to those people who have the mistaken idea that, by merely filing a frivolous asylum claim, they may stay in the United States," Nelson said. "This willful manipulation of America's generosity must stop."
Nelson said that, in order to speed reviews of refugee claims, the INS will dispatch 500 of its employees to South Texas with a goal of processing every claim within one day.
Those who are disqualified for refugee status will be deported as soon as possible, INS officials said, but they conceded that appeals can extend the proceedings for months--or even years--leaving open the possibility that people could be held in the camps for long periods.
The new policy, which was attacked immediately by immigrant rights activists, is the latest of the federal government's efforts to cope with the flood of immigrants from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The announcement coincides with a ruling Friday by U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela allowing U.S. officials to detain the immigrants at their point of entry, beginning today.
"We must use detention and deportation, or otherwise these people disappear into the woodwork," Nelson said.
But Robert Rubin, managing attorney for the San Francisco Lawyers Committee for Urban Affairs, said: "The federal government, in its usual heavy-handed manner, has adopted a policy that discriminates against bona fide asylum seekers as well as those with frivolous claims."
30,000 Since July
The INS reports that, since July, 30,000 Central Americans--about half of them Nicaraguans--have entered the United States at the Texas border alone. Up to 100,000 are expected to arrive in the region this year, claiming political persecution.
Once in the country, most of the immigrants dispersed to Florida and California, but an appreciable number settled here in the nation's capital.
Amid the steady flow, which added to hundreds of thousands of Central Americans already in the country, federal officials had groped for a policy that would be humane, effective and politically palatable. It had considered a list of options, ranging from detention to a special category, called extended voluntary departure, that would allow the immigrants to remain in the country until federal officials decided that situations in their homelands had stabilized.
Last December, the INS, asserting that almost all claims from Central Americans failed to meet the test of a "well-founded fear of persecution" in their homelands, issued rules that made the immigrants wait at the point of entry while their claims were being processed.
Immigrant groups challenged the rule, and last month Vela issued a 20-day stay of it, making it possible for the immigrants to apply for asylum any place in the nation and avoid being trapped in the squalid camps that had sprung up in South Texas.
When Vela ordered the stay, he indicated that he would allow the INS to resume holding the immigrants in South Texas when the stay expired today. His ruling Friday accomplishes that. It means also that the INS has to deal again with an influx of immigrants bottle-necked in South Texas, angering local residents.
The policy announced Monday attempts to resolve the problem's many facets, but comments from angry immigrant rights activists indicate battles to come.
Rick Swartz, president of the National Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Forum, a coalition of 110 groups, predicted myriad court challenges by immigrants and called the policy a "short-term bonus with long-term headaches" for the government.
Swartz likened the new policy to the detention of Haitians and Cubans in the early 1980s. "We learned from that experience that putting people in detention leads to denial of rights and to litigation," he said. "It will go on for years."
In Washington, a Justice Department official conceded: "We probably will have court cases all over the place . . . . This will amount to a test of wills."
Indeed, the government is gambling that the new policy will force people to make the choice it wants. The immigrants who are denied refugee status must choose between spending time in detention or returning to war and/or poverty.
Said Nelson: "No one needs to spend a day in these detention facilities if they decide to return to their own countries."