When are refugees true refugees?

Recent controversy has placed the refugee issue at the center of the United States immigration crisis. American law and United Nations treaty both define a refugee as a person unable to return to his country because of ''. . . a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.''

A person is not a refugee simply because he declares himself one; comes from a dictatorial regime of the right or of the left; is poor; or faces some adversity or discrimination. Because the US possesses only finite capacity to resettle immigrants and the world abounds in poverty and injustice, a careful attention to the definition is vital.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is an agency within the Department of Justice which has limited resources to cope with overwhelming problems. Its mission is to administer the immigration law. Nonetheless, the INS has been continually criticized - most recently in behalf of Ethiopians.

In July 1977 when consultation with the Department of State indicated extreme conditions following the 1974 military coup in Ethiopia, INS exercised extraordinary administrative discretion to allow any Ethiopian in the US to remain and work with annual renewals of ''voluntary departure'' status. Ethiopians were free to seek formal asylum or permanent residence based on family ties or job skills under the normal immigration system.

No guarantees were made that they could remain in the US indefinitely. Having enjoyed these exceptional temporary privileges, some Ethiopians now condemn INS for returning them to exactly the same legal status as anyone else seeking recognition as an asylee in the US.

While critics may be correct in their opinion of adverse conditions in Ethiopia, this does not mean that every Ethiopian is persecuted. In February 1982 the State Department country report on Ethiopia concluded: ''The human rights situation was at its worst in 1977 and 1978. . . . Because the government has since consolidated its control over most of the country, the level of human rights abuses is now significantly lower.'' While no one defends the reprehensible Ethiopian regime, considerations of improved conditions, abuse of the immigration laws by many Ethiopians, and fairness to other nationalities require the present policy.

Despite published reports, INS is not summarily deporting Ethiopians. Those in the US may apply for political asylum, be represented by counsel, and introduce any evidence. If, after consultation with the Department of State, the INS district director should deny the application, they may renew it in deportation proceedings before an independent immigration judge. If the judge's decision is adverse, the applicants may appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals and then to the federal courts.

The burden of proof is upon the applicant to establish a well-founded fear of persecution. To grant asylum, a major step toward permanent residence and eventual American citizenship, to one group without individual evidence would be extremely unfair to others and to the integrity of the immigration law. In fact, in fiscal 1981 INS approved 3,513 Ethiopian requests for refugee status from outside of the US while denying 698. Since September 1979 in the Boston district , 42 of 61 Ethiopian asylum applications were granted.

Unfortunately, some Ethiopians, like many other aliens, have contributed to the present immigration problems. Emboldened by the fact that the former policy rendered them ''deportation-proof,'' many have eschewed or abandoned asylum claims in other countries signatory to the UN refugee treaty, where they would have been safe from persecution, to satisfy personal preferences for US residence. Opting to evade US consular screening required for putative refugees abroad, many have posed as ''students'' or ''visitors'' and then quickly overstayed and worked illegally.

When finally filed, some applications for asylum have proven to be frivolous claims by completely apolitical individuals whose families have lived in post- 1974 Ethiopia without evident persecution.

Identifying the true refugee under the law demands careful evaluation. Is the young cousin of a former provincial official under Emperor Haile Selassie automatically to be presumed an asylee along with anyone who is Western-educated or harboring silent opposition?

Or, as some lobbyists have unhelpfully asserted, is every Ethiopian (Cuban, Salvadoran, Pole, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Soviet, etc.) a refugee upon request simply because his homeland is deemed politically or economically unfavorable when compared to the US?

At enormous financial and social expense, the US permanently resettles twice as many refugees and regular immigrants as the rest of the world combined while suffering a staggering influx of illegal aliens. The hard fact is that neither our laws nor our resources can confer residence upon every foreigner who may desire it. Our policy must reflect this reality: limiting the number of immigrants, while offering a safe haven for our share of bona fide refugees.

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