The Times provided its readers with an excellent basis for understanding by publishing Arthur Helton’s column “A Punitive INS, Not the Refugees, Abuses Political Asylum” (Op-Ed Page, Feb. 20). The column’s value was particularly highlighted when, the next day you printed the front-page article about the INS crackdown on unqualified refugees. The combination makes it patently clear that it is not the refugees, but rather the INS that is unqualified when it declares that “most of the Central Americans are fleeing from poverty--not persecution,” and fails to distinguish between persecution and poverty.
As Helton correctly points out, the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 granted legal political asylum to people threatened by death in their home countries. Shortly thereafter, the Reagan Administration began to interpret the law to apply only to those fleeing countries where we didn’t approve of the government, thus flooding Texas and Florida with Nicaraguans seeking to escape the abject poverty of that historically poor country, now made worse by years of defensive war against U.S.-financed Contras. On the other hand, refugees fleeing to save their lives, from “friendly” countries where fully documented records attest to tens of thousands of “disappeared” victims of death squads, rated no consideration.
Applications for legal refugee status by escapees from El Salvador and Guatemala have been routinely disqualified as “frivolous” despite the fact that most of them have lost children, husbands and brothers to the roving death squads. Thus, a humane policy designed to provide a haven for the honestly endangered, has been turned on its head to fit a bankrupt foreign policy decision. About 30 low-level INS functionaries with a law-enforcement mentality are hardly suited to administering the humanitarian purpose of providing asylum, as intended by the Refugee Act of 1980, and heartlessly misapplied ever since.
PHILIP S. BRAIL