THE United States has yet to get its act together in regard to asylum for political refugees. And it's about time it did. Very possibly, the Bush administration will be less hard-line than its predecessor on this kind of immigration problem.
Granted, asylum is a political issue, but it is also one of human rights. A nation that values the dignity of the individual must set fair and equitable standards for those who would enter its borders, not only for its own protection, but as an example to the world.
Last year, more than 60,000 asylum seekers filed claims with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In the first five months of 1989, there have already been that many applicants. Some say the increase is due to eased regulations. Others attribute it to ongoing abuses of human rights in communist countries and other parts of the world.
Regardless, both government officials and human rights groups claim there is abuse in the process. The former insist that many asylum applicants are misusing the system and that shored-up federal policies - such as prolonged detention and interception at sea - are needed to deter illegal, and unwanted, arrivals.
Proposed new rules to streamline asylum determinations and more quickly exclude aliens include elimination of a now-required hearing before an administrative judge. Under a plan drafted by the INS, specially trained officers would conduct informal hearings to consider an alien's claim for asylum status. Such a plan would require congressional approval.
These rules were drafted in the wake of a flood of Central Americans crossing the Mexican border into the US over the past year. Most were denied political asylum on the grounds that they were fleeing poverty, not political persecution.
The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has warned that this plan, if adopted, would ``obliterate fairness and due process'' for most asylum seekers. Arthur Helton, director of the political asylum project for the committee, says it would seriously affect using asylum for entering the US.
The lawyers' organization insists that it is the government, not asylum seekers, who are abusing the system. Among their recommendations for reform:
Broaden standards for awarding asylum.
Minimize ``political'' influence in making determinations.
Professionalize the adjudication process.
Limit detention of asylum seekers to situations where it is necessary to protect the community or avoid absconding.
The US Supreme Court, in 1984, affirmed the requirements of the Refugee Act of 1980, which established standards for uniform refugee eligibility to remain in the US. This ruling said that given a ``clear probability'' of a threat to life or freedom if the alien returned to his homeland, deportation would be held up. The court went further three years later by adopting a more liberal, ``well-founded fear of persecution'' standard as a basis for granting asylum under the Refugee Act.
The application of this yardstick has been spotty. Mr. Helton, of the lawyers' human rights committee, recently wrote in a report for the US Committee for Refugees: ``Ideology continues to dominate asylum and refugee determinations. Protection is frequently granted to those who flee communist regimes, but only relatively rarely to those from authoritarian regimes with which the United States has good relations, irrespective of their human rights records.''
Statistics seem to back up this charge. Of those admitted to the US last year, 90 percent came from the Soviet Union and the communist nations of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Elsewhere, predominant admissions come from Afghanistan, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
In the 1980s, about 25 percent of asylum claims have been granted. But here again the scales are tilted, with well over half of Soviet, Romanian, Chinese, Polish, and Nicaraguan applicants accepted, and more than 90 percent of those from Salvador, Sri Lanka, and Guatemala turned away.
There are, however, notable exceptions. A case recently adjudicated in a federal court, but now facing rehearing, allowed a Salvadoran refugee asylum on the basis that he objected to military service on grounds of conscience. The US Supreme Court may hear this matter down the road.