Washington — A Justice Department announcement that it will ``encourage'' Nicaraguan refugees to seek political asylum or legal status under the new immigration law and will ``expedite'' work-authorization applications from ``qualified'' Nicaraguan refugees has come under attack. Some congressmen and legal experts charge that the policy is an administration ``subterfuge'' designed to undermine pending legislation that would suspend United States deportations of refugees from El Salvador as well as Nicaragua.
Attorney General Edwin Meese III Wednesday directed the Immigration and Naturalization Service to allow Nicaraguans with ``a well-founded fear of persecution'' if deported to remain in the US.
The estimated 150,000 to 200,000 undocumented Nicaraguans in the US have fled nearly six years of internecine warfare in their country.
``There is nothing new here except the creation of the illusion that the administration is setting up some sort of special protection for Nicaraguans,'' says Carol Wolchok of the American Civil Liberties Union. She notes that all refugees, regardless of their country of origin, are eligible for asylum if they can prove a ``well-founded fear of persecution.''
``This is a political ploy to try to defeat my bill,'' asserts Rep. Joe Moakley (D) of Massachusetts. He is sponsoring legislation that would suspend for two years deportations of the Nicaraguan refugees and the estimated 600,000 Salvadorean refugees living illegally in the US.
Justice Department spokesman Pat Korten denied that the administration is trying to undermine support for the legislation, which the White House opposes. He acknowledged that Wednesday's action is a reiteration of ``existing policy.'' But he said the ruling means that ``for the first time the INS is in a pro-active mode in dealing with Nicaraguans.''
He said Justice chose to ``encourage'' and ``expedite'' asylum and legalization applications only for Nicaraguans because ``they're refugees from a Marxist, totalitarian state.'' Salvadorean refugees, he continued, cannot build as strong an argument that they have a ``well-founded fear of persecution,'' because their country has ``a democratically elected government that does not persecute its citizens.''