`Yearning to Breathe Free'

By Angie O'Gorman | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

`Yearning to Breathe Free'


Angie O'Gorman, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


We live in a time of unprecedented global migrations of people in search of security and survival. In 1976, the United Nations estimated there were 2.8 million refugees worldwide. Today, that estimate has reached 19 million. Famine, war and international trade and development policies - many designed to keep Third World resources cheap for the benefit of First World consumers - have combined to cause a global human crisis on the move.

A small percentage of these people find their way to the United States and request political asylum. They claim to fear persecution in their homeland due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a persecuted group. Unfortunately, it is now politically popular to blame these asylum seekers for many of our social and economic woes.

To make matters worse, asylum policy itself is adrift having lost the moorings the Cold War provided. When we could simply identified persecution with communism it was easier to determine when and where it existed.

Prompted by strong anti-immigrant sentiment and the internal policy confusion, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has proposed new regulations to govern U.S. asylum procedures.

New regulations are desperately needed. The asylum process in the United States is chronically dysfunctional. A backlog of 370,000 asylum applications keeps approximately 1 million people in psychological and economic limbo. In the St. Louis area, the majority of asylum applications filed since 1989 have never been decided. Permission to work is granted for six months to a year with extensive delays in obtaining renewals and a $60 fee for each renewal. Applicants, their spouses and children must put their lives on hold, unable to set down roots, yet fearing to return home.

There are two differing analysis as to the cause of the system's breakdown. One asserts it is the result of wide-spread abuse of asylum procedures by people filing frivolous claims. Such applicants only want to buy time in the United States to work. They apply and then slip, unnoticed, into American society.

A second analysis suggests the asylum system was never sufficiently funded or adequately staffed by trained hearing officers who could consistently apply asylum law. Congress sought to achieve an evenhanded process in which each asylum case would be on its merits. But social class, cultural factors and political considerations took precedence over legal standards and created havoc.

The system's breakdown probably resulted from a combination of these factors, but a question of emphasis remains. The proposed asylum regulations clearly emphasize the "people-taking-advantage-of-the-system" analysis, regardless of the fact that governmental and private studies show this is not the core problem. Even INS' own statistics show only a 7 percent filing rate of "manifestly unfounded" asylum applications.

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