IMMIGRATION issues are suddenly red hot in the nation's capital.
Congress and the White House, alarmed by boatloads of illegal Chinese immigrants landing on both coasts, are moving swiftly. As early as this week, legislation to stem the flow may be introduced with support from ranking Democratic leaders.
There is a growing consensus in Washington in favor of decisive action. Congressional sources say between 20 and 50 ships filled with would-be immigrants from China are now either on the high seas bound for the United States, or preparing to depart. Thousands of Chinese - estimates range between 10,000 and 100,000 - have entered the US illegally during the past year. Many immediately head for the New York City area, where they vanish into the growing Chinese community that now reaches from Manhattan into
Queens and Brooklyn.
The immigrants pay Chinese smugglers, known as "snakeheads," from $15,000 to $35,000 for passage to the US. A single boatload of 300 Chinese, mostly from impoverished Fujian Province, could reward smugglers as much as $10 million.
Government sources say smuggling illegal aliens has developed into a hugely profitable business for Chinese criminals, who are becoming a serious threat to law-and-order in the New York City area and on the Pacific Coast.
Sociologist James O'Kane, who teaches criminology at Drew University in Madison, N.J., says organized Chinese crime "presents police with an impossible situation. The New York Police Department has very few Chinese-speaking policemen. And the government's organized-crime groups are still geared to Mafia types." Headlines push Congress
Congress, which ordinarily takes years to formulate any change in immigration and refugee policy, is being spurred into action by banner newspaper headlines and an outraged public.
One Democratic source in Congress says extensive coverage by the media of the Chinese boat landings has increased chances for tough legislation. He says: "I don't know how many more front-page stories we can take here before this thing passes overnight. Never underestimate the power of the press. It's relentless."
A Republican source on Capitol Hill says telephone calls urging new laws are particularly numerous from California, New York, and Florida - three major receiving states for immigrants.
Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says inside-the-Beltway attitudes toward immigrants changed rapidly as the public became alarmed.
Mr. Stein says: "There is an invasion quality with boat people that sends the population into a frenzy.... We have seen it in Italy, Greece, and off the coast of Canada with the Sri Lankans. Also Hong Kong with the Vietnamese boat people."
Several bills were introduced earlier this year in the House of Representatives and the Senate to better control alien smuggling and illegal entry. However, until the Golden Venture, a Honduran-registered ship with nearly 300 Chinese immigrants, beached on a popular New York City beach on June 6, the legislation had only tepid support.
Now the White House is reported to be studying urgent measures. In the Senate, Democratic sources say new legislation may be introduced this week, and even reach the mark-up stage before week's end. In the House, Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, has vowed to expedite legislation to toughen US asylum law.
How serious is the problem?
Michael Lempres, a former Justice Department adviser on immigration, calls the current system "broken." Unless it is fixed, he sees significant dangers. Recently he told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and refugee affairs:
"There is an immediate threat to the physical security of American citizens. This threat is real. At least one of the people arrested for bombing the World Trade Center entered the country by asking for asylum and not providing a single identifying document. Alien smuggling organizations use the gaping hole in the current system to ... enter thousands of people into this country...."
What caused the problem?
Well-intended federal policies went awry. Current law allows anyone arriving in this country to claim political asylum. The law was intended to help political activists who were fleeing persecution or harm, particularly in communist nations. Floods of asylum-seekers
It was originally estimated that 5,000 people per year would ask for asylum. The actual number: 103,000 in 1992.
Because the US Immigration and Naturalization Service has only 5,000 detention spaces, and insufficient funds to rent or build many more, most of those asking for asylum are released into the country until they can get a hearing. They are given a work permit, which helps them get a driver's license and Social Security card.
There is currently an 18-month wait for an asylum hearing, but most never bother to show up. They simply vanish in the underground economy. With the Chinese, there is an additional problem. Four years ago, President Bush - reacting to the Chinese government's one-child-per-family rule - ordered that asylum be granted to any fertile person fleeing China for that reason. Most of China's 1-billion-plus people would probably qualify.
Various bills to address these problems are already in the hopper - introduced by Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, Representative Mazzoli, Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, and Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York. Joining that list this week may be Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and refugee affairs.
In a statement, Senator Kennedy said the current situation makes inaction "indefensible."
The toughest issue for Congress will be asylum claims. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California recently told a San Francisco paper: "We do have a political obligation to grant asylum when the claim is real."
But there appears to be increasing sentiment to put highly trained INS officers at each entry port to rule immediately on each case. Some congressmen want the would-be immigrant to then be put quickly on an airplane and sent home. Others say there should be one more review before the alien is excluded. But even with a second review, there is growing sentiment to shorten the exclusion process to only days, not years, or months, or even weeks.