How To Play The Asylum Game

Concerned by the seemingly endless line of foreign nationals who try to Center the United States on false or flimsy claims of political asylum, the Clinton administration this week is expected to send Congress a plan for streamlined procedures at U.S. ports of entry. The goal is to allow the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to quickly interview would-be immigrants and to reject those who do not seem to have a "credible fear of persecution" if they are returned to their native countries. Will these changes work? Maybe. But the asylum game is hideously complicated--a legal maze that simultaneously offers safe haven to the truly oppressed and a wide-open back door to many undocumented aliens. And nobody plays it better than the Chinese.

Alien-smuggling by Chinese gangs has become a hot topic since the grounding of the freighter Golden Venture off New York City last month. The U.S. Coast Guard is currently conducting far-flung interdiction patrols on the high seas off Hawaii, searching for other vessels reputedly carrying hundreds of undocumented Chinese. The influx is not new: Chinese illegal aliens have been crossing U.S. borders for years, and so far, at least, the number of Chinese who have pending asylum claims is only about 6,000--a tiny fraction of the nearly 300,000 cases currently backlogged at the INS. (Central Americans, Haitians and South Asians are far more numerous.) But INS officials are struck by the fact that many of the Chinese now arriving on U.S. shores have clearly been briefed on the complex rules of the asylum game. This is how it works:

They come by ship and plane, promising to pay as much as $40,000 each to the smugglers, known as snakeheads in Chinese, who arrange their transportation.

Under U.S. law, claiming asylum prevents the INS from deporting you right away. The reason is that everyone on U.S. soil-even foreign citizens-has the legal right to full due process under the Constitution.

Here's where the Chinese have a special advantage. Chinese aliens who claim asylum are uniquely favored under current U.S. policy. The Bush administration issued a series of executive orders that give "enhanced consideration" to Chinese who claim they oppose Beijing's draconian policies on birth control. With a population now nearing 1.2 billion, the Chinese government compels most couples to have only one child, and this policy sometimes leads to forced abortion and sterilization. The Bush policy essentially equates the threat of abortion or sterilization with political persecution--which means that any Chinese of childbearing age can reasonably claim to have a "well-founded fear of persecution." Even "an unmarried 18-year-old who comes out of the hold of a boat and says 'Someday I might want to have more than one kid"' is potentially eligible, says Warren Leiden of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Typically, asylum claimants are not detained while the INS reviews their claims--there are just too many of them, and the appeals process can take years. Meanwhile, asylum applicants have the same constitutional rights as U.S. citizens, so the government is obliged to give them temporary work permits. "They get what they wanted right there," says INS investigator Jack Shaw. What they want is the chance to get a low-paying job in the underground economy of Chinese illegals in New York and many other big cities. And even if the INS eventually turns down the immigrant's asylum petition, Shaw says, there is little or no risk of deportation: many simply vanish.

These rules are spreading among would-be emigrants in China, according to U.S. officials. Some suspect that arriving aliens have been coached by members of the smuggling gangs who brought them here. Word of mouth among friends and kin probably works just as well--and either way, the Bush policy has become an unintended lure for increased immigration from mainland China. The irony is that this loophole in U. S. immigration law often becomes a trap for smuggled Chinese. Many face ruthless exploitation in restaurants and sweatshops, and those who fail to pay their debts to the smugglers may be kidnapped, tortured or forced into crime or prostitution. Desperate to escape poverty and deprivation in China, they often find misery and servitude in America.