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Immigration under law

May 16, 1980

Legitimate concern grows about the disarray in US immigration policy. The influx of Cubans and Haitians as well as the unrelenting flow of illegal aliens from Mexico, Colombia, and other countries urgently call for a concerted effort to bring order into what now seems an increasingly chaotic situation. The problem is difficult because of its complexity. But, with population pressures south of the border not likely to ease for many years yet, the immigration question can no longer be shunted aside. One of the major challenges of the decade, it must be squarely faced up to.

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Failure to do so impinges not only on US population growth. It runs the risk of building up ethnic and social tensions. Backlash is already felt as a result of economic strains placed on New Jersey, Florida, and other communities currently receiving refugees. Beyond such temporary strains is also the uneasy and growing feeling that the country's basic social cohesiveness may be threatened by the uncontrolled entry of immigrants, especially of Spanish-speaking migrants, and the inability to assimilate them fast enough to prevent social and political divisiveness.

The need, therefore, is for policies which mitigate such strains and fears even while upholding America's tradition of humaneness and generosity.

There can be no quarrel that fairness should be one criterion in setting the law. Yet, as Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York points up, the Cubans, merely because of their geographic proximity, are able to flee to the US even while hundreds of thousands of people around the world are waiting in line for entry under normal immigration procedure. This would not seem to be just. All the more so because Fidel Castro is clearly exploiting the "family-reunification" issue for his own foreign policy goals.

President Carter quite rightly has called a halt to the influx of Cuban refugees until a safe, orderly screeming process can be set up in Cuba and castro's agreement sought for a sealift or airlift. His concern is that uncontrolled Cuban immigration, including entry of social misfits and criminals Castro does not want, will cause so much dissension in the US that the government will be forced to negotiate with the Cuban leader on his own terms. Hence the efforts to persuade the Cuban-American community to accept this moratorium until a calm exodus can be negotiated.

The issue of fairness also crops up with respect to the Cubans' status as political refugees. Those who flee communist countries have always been able to seek asylum on grounds of political persecution. A different standard has been applied to Haitians, however, who are also flocking to the US by the thousands and whom the US government regards as economic rather than political refugees and seeks to return to Haiti. Yet Cubans are just as likely to be motivated by economic considerations while Haitians come from a country that is also repressive.

Will US authorities now observe the new law which defines refugees to include persons from any part of the world able to claim political persecution? Or will they be disposed toward the old view that only communist nations practice tryanny? We tend to think that Haitians arem leaving. Haiti largely for economic reasons. But simple justice rules out a double standard, especially for a forgotten people who have no local constituency agitating for their entry.

This is not to advocate blanket admission of all Haitians, Cubans, Indochinese, and others seeking admission. But the US government should consider the factor of equity along with others -- humanitarian need, reunification of families, and capacity of the economy to absorb the immigrants -- in setting long-range refugee policy and deciding how many and which refugees to admit.

The larger problem, however, is that of the illegal aliens or so-called "undocumented aliens." There are millions, and more are arriving every day, mostly from Mexico but also from Colombia, Canada, and other countries. It goes without saying that flagrant disregard of US immigration law is making a mockery of that law, each abuse inviting further abuse and eroding the system of legality under which a democratic society functions. It is also creating a subclass of people who are being callously exploited. For these and other imperative reasons, renewed efforts must be made to deal with the problem.