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Refugees Sue INS to Obtain Work Permits : Immigration: Action alleges that 100,000 asylum-seekers, mostly in Southland, have been deprived of employment papers because of agency errors and abuse. U.S. officials admit delays but defend procedures.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Bureaucratic bungling and abuse by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have resulted in tens of thousands of political asylum applicants wrongfully not receiving work permits, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Court papers allege that a top INS official acknowledged in a meeting last week that about 60,000 political asylum applications had never been entered in the agency’s computer database and were effectively “lost out in space.” Frustrated asylum-seekers, the suit alleges, are often bounced from one INS office to another, only to be told their files cannot be found.

Through abuse and incompetence, more than 100,000 people--mostly residing in Southern California--may have ultimately been deprived of working papers, says the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, one of seven civil rights groups filing Tuesday’s action in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Many affected applications date from the 1980s.

The nine plaintiffs--all Central American refugees--are seeking a federal court injunction ordering the government to issue INS work authorizations to all legitimate asylum-seekers who have waited longer than the mandated 60- to 90-day period.

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The job papers are vital to refugees, who are otherwise ineligible for work as their applications for political asylum are processed, which can drag on for years.

Current regulations guarantee the applicants’ right to work while they await adjudication. But federal law also requires that employers check the documentation of all would-be workers.

The asylum lawsuit was filed a day before a government advisory panel, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, is expected to recommend that Congress create a nationwide network enabling employers to verify job applicants’ citizenship or immigration status. Some experts have suggested allowing employers to tap into an INS telephone-verification system. But critics say the chaotic state of asylum applications in California argues against such a notion.

INS officials, while declining to comment on the lawsuit, defended their procedures. But authorities acknowledged delays in the fraud-marred political asylum process, now facing an ever-expanding backlog of more than 400,000 applications nationwide.

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U.S. law makes political asylum available to foreign nationals who can demonstrate a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their homelands based on their race, religious or political beliefs or national origin.

The widespread INS delays in authorizing employment, the suit alleges, ultimately force many refugees into difficult choices: destitution, working illegally or returning to their homelands, where many say they face dire consequences.

“If I went back home, I’m sure I would be killed,” said a 35-year-old Guatemalan native identified only as Jose, who wore a green paper mask during a Los Angeles news conference.

A Los Angeles factory worker and father of three, Jose said he concealed his identity Tuesday so his employer would not recognize him and possibly fire him. He is working without proper papers. Jose, a former accounting teacher in Guatemala City who says he fled after guerrillas attempted to recruit his students, has been waiting nine months for renewal of his INS work authorization.

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