PRESIDENT Clinton has announced his nomination of Doris M. Meissner, a true expert on immigration issues, to head the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Among her first tasks will be to deal with growing pressure for changes in United States policies on political asylum.
When 300 Chinese washed ashore in Queens, New York, June 6 after their ship ran aground, they brought to the forefront the problems of alien smuggling and asylum. The incident also revealed the greed and misery in this human traffic. Stimulated by this incident and previous illegal landings of Chinese on the West Coast, Congress is considering measures that would tighten the rules and expedite the process under which those claiming political persecution are permitted to remain in the US.
Making this determination was relatively easy in the 1930s and the earlier days of the cold war. Almost anyone who was able to escape from oppressive regimes in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union clearly deserved such status. Later, the US granted asylum to South Vietnamese who had fought alongside US forces in the Vietnam War. But in more recent times the definition has become less clear. Those who flee the regions of the former Soviet Union today may be doing so as much for economic as political reasons.
The US is not alone in facing a redefinition of asylum. The question of controlling entry has been a political issue in nearly every Western European country and Canada. Germany, flooded with immigrants from the East, is tightening its asylum laws. France is seeking greater control over the entry of North Africans. In both countries, the increase of newcomers has stimulated right-wing protests.
For the US, special problems arise in placing limits on asylum for peoples in the Caribbean and Central America. Strong emotions, ideology, and efforts of kin living in the US make clear determinations in such cases difficult. It is virtually impossible for authorities to deny asylum to Cubans who can reach Florida. The situation for Haitians is becoming comparable. In Central America, the ideological struggles and oppression that sparked refugee movements have eased in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Hondur as, but not yet in Guatemala. The issue is complicated in Central America and Mexico because of demands for immigrant labor. Immigrants will take jobs that many Americans will not. Complaints in the US Southwest about illegal immigrants are muted by the demand for their labor. The question is less one of political asylum than of economic convenience.
Public pressures in the US urge that a broad and sympathetic asylum policy extend to peoples beyond the Americas. Voices are now being raised by Chinese-Americans and others, insisting that the Chinese brought here this month in virtual slavery should be given asylum. Chinese who are genuine political refugees will continue to reach America, but a serious question arises as to whether those who arrived illegally this month are escaping political repression. They appear clearly to be seeking economic adva ntage; to grant them asylum would risk encouraging further the cruel methods that brought them here.
For many in less-prosperous areas, the hope of betterment through migration will not fade. Although a number of developing countries are showing remarkable signs of progress, the North-South disparity is not likely to disappear. Neither will the world see the disappearance of oppressive regimes that stimulate people to flee. For the richer and freer industrial countries to close their doors would not only be inhumane but would also rob them of the talent, diversity, and enterprise that many immigrants c ontribute. Tighter and more precise rules, combined with improvements in the processing of requests, are in everyone's interest. Not only is the social stability of the developed nations involved, but so is the welfare of the people tempted to migrate. As long as policies on asylum are vague or loose, those in less-fortunate economic circumstances will be tempted by the lure of a better future and subject to being victimized as were the Chinese cast this month upon American shores.