US officials review plans to make it easier for people fleeing East bloc to gain asylum

During the six months since Soviet seaman Miroslav Medvid jumped ship near New Orleans and was forced to return by US Customs Agents, the US Justice Department has been quietly reviewing new procedures that would make it easier for citizens of communist countries to be granted asylum in the United States. If adopted, new and as yet unannounced procedures could make a significant change in the Refugee Act of 1980, which does not favor granting asylum to aliens fleeing communist countries over those from noncommunist countries. All aliens, according to current law, must prove an individual and ``well-founded fear of persecution'' in his or her country, based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social or political organization.

David Lambert, district director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in New Orleans, whose office was involved in handling the Medvid case, says that in a recent speech to district directors, Attorney General Edwin Meese III told of government plans to establish a ``presumption'' that Polish nationals and others fleeing communist countries have a well-founded fear of persecution. Mr. Lambert says Mr. Meese's proposal grew out of his ``frustrations over [the government's handling of] the Medvid situation.''

A Justice Department spokesman in Washington acknowledges that the asylum policy is under review, but says it is ``indefinite when or if the policy change will be made public.''

The Refugee Act of 1980 eliminated ideological standards for asylum, which favored refugees from communist and Middle East countries. Since the law took effect, the US has denied thousands of asylum applications from people trying to leave those areas.

For example, last year Polish nationals led other Eastern European countries by far in number of applications for asylum and were denied most often. Asylum was granted to 451 Poles, while 737 applications were rejected, according to the INS. That's an approval rate of only 38 percent. In contrast, Romania, which follows Poland in number of asylum applications (142), had a 59 percent approval rate. And of 64 applicants from the Soviet Union, 46 percent were approved.

The high denial rate for Poles seems to be at odds with US foreign policy, which accuses Poland of more human-rights violations than many other nations.

Poles who are denied asylum, however, are allowed to remain in the US, according to a provision of US policy regarding ``voluntary departure.'' Essentially, they are left in a ``state of limbo,'' says Lambert and may be asked to leave if political conditions change in their homeland. They may work but don't have other benefits such as social services that come with asylum.

Confronted with such low approval rates for asylum applications, some Poles are moving into the US through less orthodox routes. Within the last few years, US Border Patrol officials discovered a smuggling ring operating at the US-Mexican border, which helps Poles gain illegal entry into the US.

Silvestre Reyes, chief patrol agent for the McAllen, Texas, sector of the INS, dubs the operation ``the Polish Pipeline.'' Last year, 157 Polish nationals were caught along the southeastern border of Texas that makes up the McAllen sector. But three times as many may have made it through, Mr. Reyes says. The pipeline route extends from Poland, usually Warsaw, to Havana, then Mexico, and across the border into the US.

``A question we're trying to answer is how they're getting out of Poland,'' Reyes says. It is relatively easy, he says, for a Pole to obtain an official visa to visit a communist country, such as Cuba. Once in Havana, he or she is granted a visa to visit Mexico, where the person is met by an English-speaking Polish-American who drives them across the border into the US. There is, of course, a price for the service: from $3,800 to $5,000, Reyes says, adding, ``It is a racket. It's a case of Poles being exploited by Poles.''

Part of the ``Polish Pipleline'' was shut last April when ring leader Lester Sraszcynski, alias Adam Lycek, of Chicago, was arrested and charged with illegally transporting aliens. He pleaded guilty and is serving a three-year prison term. Since then there has been a ``dramatic drop'' in the nubmer of Poles trying to illegally cross the border, Reyes says.

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