PRESIDENT Clinton, under growing public pressure, vows to crack down on international criminal gangs that are smuggling thousands of illegal aliens into the United States.
Using space satellites, Coast Guard patrols, and worldwide intelligence agencies, the federal government will try to stem smuggling operations working out of Asian and Latin American countries, White House officials say.
The president denounced smugglers, who charge up to $35,000 apiece to transport aliens to the US, for subjecting immigrants to "slave-like conditions of indentured servitude to pay off their debts."
Criminal gangs are earning millions by exploiting loopholes in US immigration policy. Liberal regulations and an absence of tough federal enforcement currently permit thousands of illegal migrants to remain in the country.
Senior White House officials promise that deportation proceedings, which now can drag on for 18 months, will be speeded up. The White House will also ask Congress to pass new legislation that will allow deportation of illegal aliens within 30 days or less.
The crisis in smuggled aliens hit America's front pages when the "Golden Venture," a boat loaded with about 300 illegal Chinese immigrants, grounded June 6 at a New York City beach. At least nine of the Chinese died trying to swim for shore.
Senior White House officials were alarmed by illegal-immigrant smuggling even before the Golden Venture came ashore. They had already watched boatloads of Chinese illegals arrive in Mexico, from where 150 Chinese crossed into the US; San Diego; and San Francisco - all within the past six weeks. In addition, two fishing boats, each carrying some 150 Chinese, came ashore in California after taking the aliens off a mother ship.
Altogether, a senior White House analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimates that 2,000 smuggled Chinese immigrants were caught by federal and state law-enforcement agencies since early May. Most are being detained by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), pending legal action.
A White House analyst called the smuggling situation "dynamic," saying without swift action, the number of people arriving could continue to rise.
All this has taken place while the top position at the INS remained vacant for the first five months of the Clinton term. On Friday, the president tapped a highly experienced immigration specialist, Doris Meissner, as INS commissioner.
Ms. Meissner, a senior associate and director of the Immigration Policy Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, formerly served as acting commissioner of INS.
Her appointment was praised, both by advocates of large-scale immigration as well as immigration critics. She is considered a centrist on immigration policy.
At a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Meissner said: "The movement of people is emerging as one of the critical global issues that we face in a new age."
Other nations, including France, Germany, Canada, and Australia, are also struggling with illegal immigration. The president, whose immigration policies were not previously well-defined, indicated that he sees a direct link between large-scale immigration and domestic problems.
He told reporters: "It is a commonplace of American life that immigrants have made our country great and continue to make a very important contribution to the fabric of American life. But ... under the pressures we face today, we can't afford to lose control of our own borders, or to take on new financial burdens, at a time when we are not adequately providing for the jobs, the health care, and the education of our own people. Therefore, immigration must be a priority for this administration."
Clinton's statement indicated a volte-face for Democrats in Washington, who have generally favored higher levels of immigration. Under Democratic-supported laws, immigration rose toward 10 million during the 1980s, and could be even higher in the 1990s.
The president's new immigration effort has several major features that would:
* Increase detention of immigrants.
* Slash processing time for asylum claims, from 18 months to four months.
* Impose harsh criminal penalties for smuggling, including 20-year prison terms, up from the current five-year maximum.
* Propose new legislation within two weeks to exclude illegal aliens, with a quick, two-step review that will take no more than 10 to 30 days.
* Expand current prison facilities to detain smuggled aliens.
* Use diplomatic means to get greater cooperation from nations that either send smuggled immigrants or facilitate their transport. The principal sending nations are China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Pakistan. The primary facilitating countries are China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.