IF MANY Americans had their way, the Statue of Liberty would be
holding a "no vacancy" sign instead of a torch. Opinion polls
repeatedly show that the public believes that this country has too
In July, a Newsweek poll found that 60 percent thought that
immigration is a bad thing for the country today while 76 percent
of those questioned in a CNN/USA Today poll said that immigration
should be stopped or reduced until the economy improves.
"The American people want a sense that there are limits and
that immigration policy isn't set by a poem - a lovely poem but one
never voted on," said Dan Stein, executive director of the
Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports
capping legal immigration at 300,000 a year.
Many experts say that the real problem isn't immigration per
se; it's illegal immigration and the sense that the country has
lost control over its the borders. Getting a handle on illegal
immigration, they say, would go a long way to calm the public's
"The American people want to know that someone is minding the
store," said Demetrios Papademetriou, a specialist on immigration
at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They want
That sense of control and purpose is what President Bill
Clinton tried to convey when he announced his proposed legislation
on illegal immigration this summer. "The simple fact is that we
must not and cannot surrender our borders to those who wish to
exploit our history of compassion and justice. . . .We must say no
to illegal immigration so that we can continue to say yes to legal
immigration. . . .We will make it tougher for illegal aliens to get
into our country."
But whether the president's bill, sponsored in the Senate by
Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and introduced in the House by Ron
Mazzoli, D-Ky., will achieve those aims is open to fierce debate.
Clinton's initiative is, in fact, a relatively modest proposal
that is focused very narrowly - on asylum seekers who arrive at
airports or other ports of entry with false or destroyed documents,
an estimated 15,000 people a year.
The bill would expedite the process by which these asylum cases
are decided: An asylum officer on site would review an individual's
claim and determine whether that individual had a "credible fear"
of prosecution. If the claim were credible, the person would be
admitted and allowed to pursue asylum. If the claim appeared
frivolous, the individual would be deported.
The bill permits a senior asylum officer to review a
controversial decision, but it eliminates the prospect of taking
the matter to court.
Even though the bill is narrowly drawn, it still compromises
fundamental safeguards, said Lucas Guttentag, director of the
Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties
The expedited process "precludes the federal courts from
reviewing any determination," said Guttentag. "The only possible
motivation for such a proposal must be the administration's fear
that judicial oversight will expose bias, discrimination and
Guttentag is not mollified by the protection of an
administrative review by a senior asylum officer. …