Bid to Tighten US Borders Spurs Outcry From Activists

Against a backdrop of mounting citizen concern, Clinton submits legislation to curb illegal immigration

JUST minutes after President Clinton asked Congress this week for tougher laws to stem the flow of illegal aliens, more than a dozen special-interest groups were already demanding defeat of the White House plan.

"The administration proposal goes ... too far," charged Warren Liden, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Mr. Liden says the Clinton plan "creates an unacceptable risk that true refugees will be returned to persecution."

Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, accused the president of a "mad rush to grandstand on the issue of immigration enforcement."

Those angry words from ethnic, legal, and human-rights organizations may fall on deaf ears in Congress, however. American voters' concerns about illegal immigrants, including terrorists and criminal smugglers, have rapidly escalated in recent months.

The president noted at a White House press conference that it was the bombing of New York City's World Trade Center that prompted the White House to seek new law enforcement authority. Clinton said that when that happened, it "caused us to review a whole range of issues, not just involving immigration, in terms of our ability to deal with the whole threat of actual or potential terrorism."

Government officials are also alarmed by boatloads of Chinese immigrants arriving on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Without quick action, such migration, organized and promoted by criminal smuggling syndicates, could mushroom out of control, officials say.

Democratic lawmakers are also aware that poll after poll shows Americans want stronger government enforcement of immigration laws, including tighter controls at the Mexican border. That has forced even some liberals, like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, to support tougher action along the nation's frontiers.

The Clinton proposal calls for $172.5 million in new spending during fiscal year 1994. About half of that would be paid for through fees and other revenues, including $5 million from expanded government authority to seize the assets, such as boats and buildings, owned by smugglers.

Although Chinese smuggling has recently gotten the greatest press attention, White House officials say the ability to seize smugglers' assets could also hurt so-called Mexican "coyotes" who bring thousands of illegal aliens across the Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico borders every month.

The White House initiative, which still must get approval from Congress, has several major provisions:

* Border Patrol. It would add approximately 600 new agents to the 4,400 now guarding the nation's frontiers. The Border Patrol would also get new high-tech equipment, including sensors and low-light-level television, to improve its effectiveness.

* State Department. About $45 million would be used next year to upgrade the department's ability to issue fraud-proof, machine-readable passports and visas.

State would also install a computerized, name-check system to screen out undesirable persons, such as terrorists and other criminals.

* Airport inspections. The US will expand its program to check travel documents of passengers before they board flights to this country. In a recent London test, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) intercepted 433 inadmissible aliens on their way to the US.

* Excluding aliens. When travelers arrive at US airports, it can take up to 18 months to deport them, even if they have fraudulent documents or no documents. Thousands, claiming to be political refugees, await hearings. Clinton wants an expedited process that could deport someone making a fraudulent claim within a matter of days.

* Asylum specialists. The INS employs only 150 experts to hear asylum claims. That number would be doubled, but critics say it would still fall far short. For example, Liden says Sweden has 800 officers, Germany has 3,000.

* Criminal penalties. Prison time for smuggling would double from five years to 10. The INS could seize smugglers' property, and law enforcement officers could wiretap to investigate smuggling.

The White House proposal dismays some groups dedicated to the rights of migrants and refugees, such as the American Bar Association, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, the United States Catholic Conference, Amnesty International USA, and the Organization of Chinese Americans, Inc.

Lucas Guttentag of the American Civil Liberties Union says Clinton's plan "would allow the INS to operate behind a veil of secrecy and would deny constitutional due process to legitimate seekers of political asylum." He says it "panders to America's most primitive fears about immigration."

Now it's up to Congress.

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