Senators Urge Flexibility in Enforcing Asylum Laws


One year after implementation of a landmark overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, senators from both parties Tuesday called on the Clinton administration to be flexible in applying new rules governing asylum for political refugees.

“The very least we can do . . . is for the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] to promulgate very broad exceptions,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). “I would urge the INS to do the right thing, to do what is consistent with the history of this country so that people who are oppressed will be welcomed with open arms.”

The lawmakers specifically said the deadline requiring immigrants to apply for asylum within a year of their arrival in the United States is often unreasonable and should not be strictly enforced.

They complained of mistreatment of some refugees by INS officers, citing examples in which immigrants were shackled to chairs and denied food during hours-long questioning and incarcerated for months while awaiting asylum decisions.


The lawmakers appeared at a news conference featuring actress Sigourney Weaver. They were joined by immigration advocates who unveiled a report titled, “Slamming the Golden Door.” The report highlighted problems with the new rules, which allow INS officers to immediately return refugees to their homelands if they arrive without proper papers and fail a “credible fear” test.

But even as the complaints were detailed about the new system, the INS released statistics showing marked improvement in the asylum system. And a separate report by the congressional General Accounting Office gave the new rules generally good marks.

According to the seven-month GAO review, INS officers found that 79% of the 1,396 immigrants complaining of persecution in their home countries had “credible fear” of returning. Reviewing cases of those who failed the test, immigration judges affirmed INS decisions 83% of the time, according to the GAO report. Inspectors followed proper INS procedures between 80% and 100% of the time, the report said.

And an architect of the overall immigration reform law credited the new asylum provisions with reducing fraudulent claims of persecution and said existing rules should be strictly enforced.


“The choice is between billable-hour opportunities for immigration lawyers grasping at loopholes for illegal aliens or preserving the integrity of asylum laws,” said Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and claims.

The Clinton administration opposed the one-year deadline for asylum applications that was the focus of much of the complaints aired Tuesday, but officials said that, as long as it is on the books, they’ll enforce it. INS officials also noted that there is a waiver process.

“If you miss the one-year deadline for extenuating circumstances, we’ll consider that,” INS spokesman Eric Andrus said.

The Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights--of which Weaver is a board member--and a separate report by the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, argue that it routinely takes more than a year for people fleeing foreign persecution to navigate the U.S. bureaucracy and realize that they need to apply for asylum, much less figure out how.


Further, refugees are often suffering from trauma and not ready to discuss their treatment in their homelands, particularly with government officials, the advocates say.

Weaver spoke of Argentine and Chilean rape survivors she had interviewed several years ago. “These women could not have told some strange man in a crowded room what happened to them even if they knew their lives depended on it,” the actress said, referring to the “credible fear” provision of the new law.

Asylum claims have dropped radically in recent years, from 127,000 in 1993 to 46,000 last year.