Hurdles to Asylum

SPEED is not a word one generally associates with the Immigration and Naturalization Service faced with applications for political asylum.

The problem stems from too few people dealing with a flood of applications, many of which can be spurious. Between 1991 and last year, the number of applications grew from 56,000 to slightly more than 150,000. The agency faces a backlog that by some estimates could reach as high as 500,000 by year's end. It is not unusual for an asylum request to take up to two years to work its way through the process.

The INS is correct to try to streamline the process and discourage fraudulent requests. But some details of new procedures just announced raise concerns, particularly since asylum requests deal with matters of life and death. Among the changes: charging a $130 application fee; increasing the number of officers assigned to asylum cases, as well as increasing the number of INS judges to adjudicate them; refusing to grant a work permit to asylum seekers until their asylum requests have been approved or unless the approval process exceeds 180 days; and allowing case officers to refer disallowed asylum requests to immigration judges without a prior hearing.

The $130 application fee, for example, is a dubious change. The fee can be waived if an applicant is unable to pay it (as many would be); but the waiver activity adds to the number of adjudication steps. The fee also raises the broader question: Should people who have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group pay a ``user fee'' for trying to exercise a basic human right? We think not.

The restrictions placed on work permits are designed to avoid situations where immigrants file for asylum, get a work permit, and then vanish. Yet under the changes, legitimate applicants would remain a burden to relatives, friends, or society until their asylum request is granted or they are deported. And they still need to pay the $130 fee.

The INS approach needs refinement before the rules become final; the changes tend to burden the legitimate requests for asylum as well as the spurious. The increase in personnel to handle cases, itself inadequate to meet the need, suggests that the solution to the problem may lie more with Congress and its allocation of resources to the INS than with rule changes by the agency.

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