Immigration Issues Land in Clinton's Lap

Mexican, Haitian problems are most acute

AMERICA'S southern borders - from Miami to San Diego - are under growing pressure from migrants, whose efforts to reach the United States could pose one of the first serious foreign-policy challenges for President-elect Clinton.

Immigration problems are particularly acute on two fronts:

* Haiti, where economic need and political tyranny could prompt hundreds of thousands of people into small boats to reach Florida next year.

* Mexico, where low wages and joblessness are pushing millions to migrate, both legally and illegally, to California, Texas, and other Sun Belt states. Policy split

President Bush has taken a tough attitude toward Haitians, but Mr. Clinton has vowed to soften that policy. Bush officials have reportedly warned that a more liberal policy by Clinton could attract 200,000 to 500,000 Haitians to the Miami area.

Meanwhile, illegal immigration from Mexico has again surged to a record, with 1,140,914 apprehensions along the border during the 1992 fiscal year. Officials of the US Border Patrol estimate that for every person detained, two people slip past border guards.

The Haitians pose the greatest immediate political risk to Clinton. Allowing large numbers into south Florida could create a political backlash. Yet turning them aside could anger Clinton's liberal political allies, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), compares Clinton's dilemma to the Mariel boatlift that put 125,000 Cubans into south Florida when Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

"It will be ironic indeed if Clinton launches his administration with a 1,000-boat boatlift from Haiti. Shades of Jimmy Carter," Mr. Stein says.

Robert Pastor, a political scientist at Emory University, calls the Mariel boatlift crisis "one of the worst experiences of my governmental career." At the time, he was serving as President Carter's senior adviser on Latin American, Caribbean, and North-South issues.

Will Haiti create a similar problem for Clinton?

Dr. Pastor says: "You never repeat history precisely, particularly after a trauma [like Mariel]. Some lessons have been learned.... There is no reason, or need, to repeat the trauma of the Mariel boatlift."

To head off a similar Haitian crisis, Pastor says Clinton will have to look at "hard options."

First, Clinton should encourage more active mediation within Haiti to improve the repressive political climate there. Second, he says, there should be external leverage to make sure conditions improve.

Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota says the important question for Clinton is: "How are the Democrats going to explain 300,000 new Haitians in south Florida.... There's no question in my mind that the popular policy [with the public] is to keep them out."

By and large, Republicans and Democrats are ambivalent about immigration problems, including the Haitian situation. In fact, some Republicans applaud Clinton's more-generous attitude toward Haitians.

One of those is David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. He says Republicans, like most other Americans, have sharply divided views on large-scale immigration. Kemp, Buchanan differ

One wing of the GOP, including leaders like Jack Kemp, would open their arms to boat people. Another wing, including Patrick Buchanan, would erect barriers to large-scale immigration.

"It's a very tough issue, not just with the Haitians, but with refugees from countries all over the world," Mr. Keene says. "If you threw open the gates, and said, `Let's have everybody come on in because immigrants have built this country,' you would have very serious practical problems."

Pastor says Clinton is only promising that he will give Haitians a fair hearing, as required under the Refugee Act of 1980, to see if they are really political refugees. What is needed along with that, however, is a new negotiating effort on the whole Haitian problem, he says.

The professor is skeptical of the estimates of 500,000 Haitian refugees. "There are some people in the administration ... who are sowing a lot of these stories for their own policy purposes," he says. "They don't want the [Bush] policy changed."

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