The INS Learns How To Play Ball

As almost never before in peace time, people are on the move, impelled by privation and persecution to leave their countries in the hope of a better life in another country. Hundreds of thousands of Moroccans have turned up on the shores of Spain ... Algerians in France ... Bosnians in Germany ... Albanians in Italy ... Rwandans in Tanzania ... and Cubans - ah, the Cubans!

For years, for political reasons, the United States had a policy of giving asylum to all refugees from Fidel Castro. Finally, in 1995, appalled by the influx of boat people, some of them criminals, the Clinton administration negotiated an agreement with Cuba, allowing the forcible return of most of the boat people.

But then the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had to face a delicate question. Not all Cuban refugees are equal. Some are terrific baseball players. How do you write a law that keeps out unwanted refugees but lets in, say, a Livan Hernandez, the most valuable player of the World Series-winning Marlins?

Our bureaucrats were equal to the challenge. An amendment to the Immigration Act provided for the admission, outside of quotas, of immigrants with "extraordinary ability" in the sciences, arts, education - or athletics. Thus, an Einstein or a Hernandez would be welcome to our shores.

So, when Livan's half-brother, right-handed pitcher Orlando Hernandez, fled Cuba around the New Year with a catcher, a girlfriend, and five others in a leaky boat that foundered off the Bahamas, our government was ready. Attorney General Janet Reno said the pitcher, the catcher, and the girlfriend, whose "extraordinary ability" remains to be determined, could enter the United States, but not the five others.

THE INS has its rules, but then Major League Baseball has its rules, too. A resident of a foreign country is a "free agent" in negotiating his baseball contract, which means he can demand and get millions, as Livan Hernandez did by adopting the Dominican Republic.

So, guess what? Orlando Hernandez said thanks, but no thanks, to Janet Reno, and went off to Costa Rica with his catcher, his girlfriend, and the five friends. He now expects a $7 million contract with the Marlins.

It is heartening to know of our government's compassionate attitude toward refugees - those who yearn to breathe free and those who yearn to be free agents.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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