Stopping 'illegals' on the high seas

President Reagan's extraordinary executive order to turn back illegal immigrants on the high seas may serve the valuable deterrent purpose of making would-be violators think twice. But he would have done better to obtain an explicit congressional mandate. For many questions of national image and legal substance are raised by the unprecedented step of using the Coast Guard to stop ships for inspection and for on-the-spot judgment of passenger eligibility to continue to the United States. And Congress should share in reaching such a decision. Indeed, legislation was reportedly drafted by the Justice Department as a means of strengthening the President's hand, even thought it was believed that the operation was within his power.

By pressing ahead on his own, the President assumes special responsibility for ensuring the program meets the standards for immigration control he declared in the summer: "consistent with fair procedures and our Constitution" and "consistent with out values of individual privacy and freedom."

Warning are already being sounded about the dangers of the shipboard adjudications of immigrant or refugee eligibility lapsing into kangaroo courts. With black Haitians as the main evident target of the Coast Guard action, and without equivalent enforcement measures against Mexicans, for example, there are also questions about giving an impression of racism. In light of all the legal controverys ove whether Haitians receive due process of law even on US soil, the administration will have to be zealous to protect at sea the fairness Mr. Reagan calls for.

A main point in relation to the illegal Haitians is whether -- like the illegal Mexicans, Canadians, and others -- they are going to the US more for jobs than to escape persecution. The repressive regime in Haiti is often cited to give some benefit of the doubt for Haitians, as does the Havana regime for Cubans. the US, with its enormous attractions of both freedom and opportunity, has to find effective ways to control its shores. Where to begin? The administration deserves credit for a willingness to try new measures; it will be judged on how it shapes and implements them.

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