Immigrants Forced to Flee

MORE than a year ago, many Americans were tearing their hair out over the number of Haitians seeking asylum in this country. Then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power and for all we hear today, the flood has lessened to a trickle.

If it has declined, it is because fewer Haitians are forced to flee the kinds of political rape and killings rampant in the early 1990s. The Haitian economy is still far from robust, but Mr. Aristide has stuck to his promise to restore respect for human rights.

There are lessons here for US foreign policy and for Americans' attitude toward immigration, but no one seems to have noticed them. The most obvious is this: If the United States wants to decrease the flow of immigrants seeking admission to this country, it has to remain engaged with the rest of the world. This is not to say that US troops need to be deployed all over the world as they were in Haiti. There are dozens of ways for us to stay involved short of that.

Those who advocate severe cutbacks in immigration quotas, an expedited exclusion process, and drastic limits on the time refugees have to apply for asylum - while at the same time calling for reductions in foreign economic assistance and scalebacks in US support for the United Nations, and a general posture of isolationism - are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Many Americans seem to operate under the assumption that anyone in his or her right mind would rather live in the United States than anywhere else if they only had the chance. But the majority of the foreign-born who come to this country do so not just because they are drawn by the American dream (which is perhaps less a magnet than it once was) but because economic or political circumstances in their own countries force them out. Those of us who work with immigrant communities know that, all things bei ng equal, most immigrants would rather stay right where they were born.

All things are not equal, of course, and no matter how much foreign aid the United States gives or how firmly it stands against human rights violations overseas, they never will be. But to shortchange the few vehicles this country does have by which to influence events outside its borders; to jeopardize the United Nations' peacekeeping efforts and its human rights enforcement; and then to complain about immigration flow is to be scandalously inconsistent and misinformed.

Approximately 15 percent of those who seek entry to this country every year do so because they fear political persecution at home. Typical of that number is Dr. Jorge Lopez (a pseudonym) who served as a special prosecutor in Peru investigating reported ''disappearances'' of political dissidents and peasant leaders. In 1988, Dr. Lopez learned of a massacre that had taken place, allegedly with the involvement of the military. When he investigated the allegations, he and his family received a string of dea th threats and were forced to flee to this country where they were eventually offered asylum.

Today Lopez, the former special prosecutor, works as an upholsterer. His children, forced to learn a new language, have been cut off from their family and roots in Peru. Much as they appreciate the US, all of them would much rather have stayed in their beloved homeland.

To scapegoat immigrants, economic or political, legal or illegal, while sounding a retreat from our commitments overseas is to mix demagoguery with illusion. But then many of those who promote this lethal combination were also insisting a year ago that President Aristide was a tyrant and a madman. Makes you wonder who really deserves to be called mad, doesn't it?

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