WASHINGTON — POLITICAL refugee? Or political terrorist?
The question haunts federal officials as the number of people seeking political asylum in the United States swells to more than 8,000 a month.
Many foreigners, aided by smugglers, carry bogus passports and tell exaggerated tales of political and religious persecution back home. Overworked US officials and courts take years to process their cases. Meanwhile, the "asylees" walk free, and even hold jobs in the US.
Officials often know little about asylum seekers. But in the wake of recent terrorist attacks, there is new sentiment in Washington for more border security, and closer examination of those entering the US.
The Jan. 25 murder of two officials of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in suburban Washington, and the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York brought the issue to a head. Illegal residents are suspects in both terrorist incidents, the worst here in history.
Mir Aimal Kansi, a Pakistani charged in the CIA shooting, entered the US with a business visa, then asked for political asylum. Two years later, his case still pending, he was living in Virginia at the time of the attack.
Mohammed Salameh, a Jordanian arrested in connection with the trade center explosion, arrived with a six-month tourist visa in 1988, then applied to stay in the US under two amnesty programs. Although denied residency, he is still here.
In a related case, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the radical Muslim cleric who preaches at the New Jersey mosque where Mr. Salameh and fellow trade center suspect Nidal Ayyad worship, announced he will fight a deportation order issued Wednesday.
Critics and some members of Congress, including Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, are demanding that the government stiffen border enforcement. Representative McCollum says: "We are being forced to accept thousands of people a month whom we know nothing about."
Yonah Alexander, an expert on terrorism, says many of those entering the US are obviously genuine refugees. Yet even a few hundred terrorists among them "can cause a great deal of problems," Dr. Alexander says.
Alexander, who teaches at George Washington University, says: "We have to improve our procedures to find out who the people are, and create some mechanism to expedite the ... process."
To that end, McCollum this week introduced the Exclusion and Asylum Reform Amendments of 1993, which would grant federal officials immediate authority to expel aliens who enter the US without proper documents. That would include anyone whose claim of political asylum does not seem based on "a credible fear of persecution."
Yet Horace Busby, who served in the Johnson White House, says political sentiment still won't support a strong border crackdown.
"Only if we have a few more major incidents ... only then will there be pressure in all directions" for action, he predicts.
Joseph Churba, president of the International Security Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says America's open borders present a growing danger.
"The laws are so lenient that they are inviting terrorism," Dr. Churba says. "As it stands today, a person can come into New York and plea asylum without any papers and [he] would not be detained. He would be free ... to move around the United States on his own cognizance."
"I think we have to take a second look at the openness of the United States, because openness is a blessing, but it can also be a curse from a security point of view," Alexander says. "We need to strike a balance between security and human rights."
ANY crackdown on asylum seekers could provoke an outcry from human rights advocates, who see the US as a last hope for many persecuted peoples.
There were only 24,000 asylum requests in 1984. That jumped to 101,000 by 1989. Officials see no letup.
The largest numbers come from Central America, China, Haiti, and Eastern Europe. Many show up without papers at airports like JFK in New York City. Officials cannot legally hold them, or send them home.
As a result, backlogs are growing. Last year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service processed only 22,674 cases, while the backlog grew to 135,000. It could reach 215,000 this year, INS officials say. Most asylum seekers avoid the hearings, and drop out of sight.
Representative McCollum says that when the law was passed, only 5,000 persons a year were expected to claim asylum. It's now 20 times that.
It is "rampant abuse," he says.
Officials also point to another growing, and related, problem. More than 500,000 foreign tourists a year (out of 25 million) are failing to leave the country when their visas expire. Many become illegal residents.