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INS Commissioner Reveals Plan For Handling Central Americans Seeking Asylum

February 21, 1989 GMT

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Central Americans applying for asylum will get an answer in as little as one day and will be subject to immediate imprisonment if turned down, officials said Monday.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service staff in southern Texas will be increased by 500 to patrol the border and speed up the weeding out of ″frivolous″ asylum claims, INS Commissioner Alan Nelson announced.

More jails will be built to hold people who are turned down pending their appeal or deportation, he said.

″We intend to send a strong signal to those people who have the mistaken idea that by merely filing a frivolous asylum claim, they may stay in the United States,″ Nelson said. ″This willful manipulation of America’s generosity must stop.″

A group called the Brownsville Ad Hoc Refugee Committee criticized the new INS policy as a ″mean-spirited attempt to deter political refugees from applying for political asylum.″

The policy will be phased in over the next several weeks. Nelson said the INS hopes eventually to process most asylum applications in the region in a day or two. Currently, asylum decisions can take months.

″We hope to have same-day service,″ said INS spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

The changes came the same day the INS was allowed to reinstate a policy restricting people seeking asylum from leaving southern Texas while they await decisions.

Before Dec. 16, the INS allowed Central American asylum seekers to check in at its south Texas district, then travel anywhere in the United States while their cases were reviewed. But after that date, the agency made them stay in the Brownsville area during the review, forcing them to live in tents and trying the patience of residents and relief agencies.

Responding to a lawsuit filed by attorneys representing asylum seekers, U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela issued a temporary order Jan. 9 requiring the INS to once more allow the Central Americans to travel. He ruled Friday that the INS could return to the policy of restricting their movement.

Tens of thousands of Central Americans are expected to cross the Rio Grande into southern Texas this year, according to the INS, which says political asylum requests from Central Americans have risen almost sevenfold over the past four years. More than 50,000 sought asylum in fiscal year 1988, compared with 7,063 in 1985.

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According to INS records, 3,136 people applied for asylum between Wednesday and Sunday at the agency’s Port Isabel Processing Center, a rural detention center 15 miles northeast of Brownsville, the main entry point for asylum- seekers from war-torn and poverty-stricken Central America.

But INS officials maintain that most of the Central Americans are here for economic reasons and do not qualify for asylum from persecution.

Robert Rubin, lead counsel in the lawsuit that led to the restraining order, said INS detention ″should be the exception and not the rule for asylum seekers.″ He said the United States should show a ″humanitarian spirit.″

Roughly half of the Central Americans seeking asylum are from Nicaragua, Nelson said.

″In a real sense,″ said Rubin, in San Francisco, ″the INS has become a prisoner of its own policy. And that policy as recently as 1987 and 1988 was to encourage Nicaraguans to come to the United States because they would be granted asylum.

″Now, finally, the United States appears to be overwhelmed by the numbers and it is no longer politically expedient″ to accept the Nicaraguans.

Under the new policy, those denied asylum can either return immediately to their home countries or be given a hearing before an immigration judge where they may renew their applications for asylum.

Nelson said he did not know how long it might take for a person to get that hearing before a judge.

″I think we’re going to see detention in years,″ said immigration lawyer Linda Yanez.

While they await deportation, single adults will be detained at prison-like INS detention centers; family groups may be allowed to stay in less- restrictive facilities that will be set up, Nelson said.

Nelson said if more detention space were needed, the agency could erect tents to house up to 5,000 people within 10 days.

Brownsville Mayor Ygnacio Garza welcomed the plan. ″From the standpoint of the city, I think it will be good in terms of taking people and providing for them in a humanitarian way,″ Garza said.

Although hundreds of Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans have camped outside the Port Isabel Processing Center in temperatures dropping into the 40s waiting to apply for asylum, many have been grateful for their reception. Local residents have provided food and blankets.

″We expected people at the border aiming rifles at us, but the American people have been very kind, very generous, and we appreciate it,″ said Honduran Marcio Nunez as he ate a meal of rice and beans provided by members of a Port Isabel church.

″In Honduras, we have a very bad concept of the United States because of all the Mexican movies showing mean agents,″ Nunez added, ″but you have been very generous.″

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