David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Clinton Immigration Reforms - Bending Before the Anti-Immigrant Wind
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (2/27/94) - Next month Romy Villanueva will finally go home to the Philippines. The big U.S. bases are gone now, and martial law ended some years ago. Although the country's government is still quite conservative, Villanueva feels in no danger.

That wasn't the case when he arrived in San Francisco in 1979. Villanueva was a seminarian then. Inspired by the ideas of liberation theology, he had organized rural communities in Bataan province, just outside of Manila, to oppose the construction of a giant nuclear plant on the side of a volcano.

His were acts of defiance during the dark days of martial law, imposed on the Philippines by then-President Ferdinand Marcos. The Bataan nuclear plant was a priority project for Marcos and Westinghouse Corp. Communities on the volcano where it was to be built faced reprisals from the Philippine Army, and the disappearance of political activists who were organizing the opposition movement.

Villanueva came to the U.S. to talk to anti-nuclear and anti-martial law activists, to win support for the effort which eventually halted the plant's construction. But he paid a price. His grandfather wrote to him, saying that the army was looking for him, and that his brother had been arrested. He told his grandson not to come home.

In 1981, Villanueva applied for asylum. "It was hard to win my case," he remembered. "It took a long time because Marcos was a U.S. ally." The government didn't want to be embarrassed by admitting that Marcos was forcing thousands of Filipinos to flee their country.

Villanueva and his attorney, William Tamayo of the Asian Law Caucus, had to present extensive evidence that he would be imprisoned or killed if he was returned to the Philippines. But their thorough documentation was unassailable. After a year and a half of delay, he finally was granted asylum.

Under the new immigration policy proposed by the Clinton administration, Villanueva wouldn't have a chance. In mid-February Chris Sale, deputy director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, announced new regulations severely restricting asylum applicants.

Under the new proposals, applicants must declare their intention to seek asylum within 30 days of arrival in the U.S. INS examiners will immediately determine if their application has supporting evidence. They will have to pay a fee of $130, making the U.S. the only country in the world to charge for asylum. And applicants won't be able to get permission to work for the first five months while their application is being considered.

Villanueva had no documentation when he arrived, and it took a long time to assemble it. He would have lost a quickie hearing. He didn't even ask for asylum until he received his grandfather's letter. If he had been able to make it over those hurdles, the next would have been just as hard. "As it was, I was already asking my friends to give me money. It would have been very hard to survive if I hadn't been able to get permission to work," he thinks now.

Clinton's proposals are intended to "streamline" the asylum process, and are part of a larger administration package on immigration. But immigrant rights activists call the whole package seriously flawed, and a response dictated by the political winds blowing in Washington.

Shortly after the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, Dan Stein, director of the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform, appeared on NBC's "60 Minutes." He said that the incident proved U.S. asylum procedures were permitting terrorists to enter the country, and called asylum "a national security problem." Advocates of immigration restrictions then quickly introduced proposals into Congress to change asylum procedures. The administration unveiled a similar bill in response.

Sale and the makers of restrictive proposals defend them by pointing to the backlog in asylum applications, now totalling over 364,000. The backlog has two causes, however, according to Cathi Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. On the one hand, the INS has only 800 hearing officers to hear all its cases. By comparison, Switzerland has 3000. But the backlog is also part of the heritage of the cold war, she said. "If the INS hadn't discriminated against applicants from certain countries in the first place, the backlog wouldn't be the problem it is."

Immigration and foreign policy in the U.S. have always gone hand in hand. For many years, U.S. laws gave high immigration quotas to European countries, and low ones to Latin and Asian countries. Communists and other political radicals were barred entry until those restrictions were finally dropped just a few years ago. Asylum applicants from Cuba and the former Soviet Union received rapid consideration, and their applications were normally granted. But as a Federal court ruled in a case brought by the American Baptist Church, the process was fundamentally biased against applicants from El Salvador and Guatemala, where the U.S. government has supported repressive military regimes.

The most controversial and political decisions about immigration have been those which affect the Haitians. President Bush initially ordered the Coast Guard to pick up and send back boatloads of Haitians fleeing the waves of military repression after the fall of the ruling Duvaliers, especially after the subsequent coup which forced popularly-elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide into exile. Initially interned at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, Haitian refugees were interviewed for asylum there or on board ships.

When Clinton ran for president, he promised that he would end the policy of returning fleeing Haitians, as part of a broader effort to restore Aristide and a democratic government. But shortly after his election, Clinton upheld Bush's interdiction. Haitians, he said, would have to go to U.S. consular offices in Haiti to make application for asylum. Supporters of the refugees, however, point out that access to legal counsel is virtually unavailable to applicants, and that the whole process exposes political dissidents to Haiti's military while they are still in the country, and at its mercy. Refugees who simply try to leave the island, for whatever destination, are picked up at sea and returned to face those they fear the most, with no chance to apply for asylum at all.

It is a situation unprecedented in the history of international law.

Clinton's asylum proposal has also been criticized because its impact falls most heavily on the poorest immigrants. Most political exiles flee their countries with no possessions, and few friends or contacts to help them survive in the U.S. The $130 fee would have been far out of the reach of most of the hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran refugees who fled to the U.S. during its ten-year civil war. Surviving without work in the U.S., especially for a family, for five months, would be even harder. "The message is, if you don't have financial means, don't even think about it," Tactaquin said.

Over the past two decades, the border between the U.S. and Mexico has become the most militarized area within the continental United States. Border Patrol agents watch poor Mexican workers seeking to cross illegally through infrared scopes developed to fight guerrilla wars. High metal fences topped with razor wire run from the beach up through the barrios of San Ysidro and Tijuana - a modern- day Berlin Wall erected to stop them. For five miles high-intensity sodium lamps bathe it in light, and proposals call for extending the lights inland another ten miles. Helicopters drone overhead around the clock, while jeeps and all-terrain vehicles endlessly criss-cross the sand.

Clinton's immigration plan couples asylum restrictions with increased enforcement in this already highly-charged atmosphere. Beefing up the border has been a popular proposal among Democrats this past year. California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed a $1 border crossing fee to channel more money to the Border Patrol. Even liberal Senator Barbara Boxer proposed sending hundreds of National Guardsmen to back it up.

But Latino immigrants and citizens living close to the border view these proposals with fear and alarm. Abuse by Border Patrol agents has been so extensive that last year the House of Representatives Committee on Government Operations issued a report which questioned "the sufficiency of investigations into allegations of misconduct by INS personnel - in particular, Border Patrol personnel who are often accused of abusive behavior." It called INS discipline in misconduct cases "spotty," and accused some agents of lacking "a basic sense of civility."

The report was given new credence when a Phoenix jury acquitted Border Patrol Agent Michael Elmer of federal civil rights violation charges in the shooting death of Dario Miranda Valenzuela at his hands last year. Despite many accusations of brutality and excessive force over the years, Elmer is the only Border Patrol agent ever tried on these charges. Some of his fellow agents even testified against him. "The trial just reinforced the feelings in border communities that agents can act with impunity, and in their lack of confidence that the criminal justice system operates effectively along the border," Tactaquin said.

The Clinton plan calls for sensitivity training for Border Patrol agents, but it also calls for concentrating them in large numbers in certain areas, a new tactic recently used by the INS in Operation Blockade in San Diego. Concentration has brought with it a steep increase in complaints of abuse.

Both the asylum and the border enforcement proposals represent a step away from examining the factors which cause immigration in the first place - the push factors. These factors include the political repression which causes refugees to seek asylum, and the widespread poverty and unemployment which push people to seek a better life elsewhere. These factors operate worldwide. Over 100 million people are in transit across the globe, migrating between countries, a phenomenon new in human history, one which suggests that immigration and population movement is becoming a permanent part of modern life. Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner made statements early in the administration that new immigration legislation would have to take a look at these factors.

But Clinton's immigration proposals concentrate exclusively on enforcement. While Reno argued during the debate over NAFTA that the trade agreement would produce jobs in Mexico and reduce the pressure for immigration, most observers expect unemployment there to increase as U.S. corn exports force Mexican farmers off their land, and cheap U.S. consumer goods undermine small Mexican producers.

Instead, the immigration proposals react to a growing stream of restrictive legislation directed at immigrants. "Despite statements that enforcement alone won't stop immigration, every single element is a response to immigrant bashing," Tactaquin commented bitterly.

Immigrant bashing has become California's most popular political sport. Last year Governor Wilson wrote an open letter to President Clinton, and took out fullpage ads in national newspapers, advocating proposals to throw immigrant children out of schools, deny immigrants medical care, and force workers to carry national identification cards.

Bills were introduced into the state legislature by Orange County Republicans, which would have denied the use of public funds for the education of immigrant children, for emergency medical and prenatal services, workers' compensation benefits, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, public housing, and other em- ployment and public benefits. One bill would have made it a state crime for an undocumented immigrant to remain in California; another would have built a prison for Mexican immigrants in Baja California.

But Democrats haven't been exempt. In fact, they presented a picture of liberals running before what they perceive as an unstoppable tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Los Angeles Congressman Anthony Bielenson introduced a Congressional bill which would create a national identification card, and deny U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented workers born in the U.S. (an unconstitutional proposal subsequently taken up by Governor Wilson.) Even State Assemblyman Richard Polanco, who fought hard against extreme Republican proposals in the state legislature, called for increased enforcement of employer sanctions, saying they would put the burden of controlling immigration on the back of employers instead of workers.

Three petitions to put initiatives on the ballot in November are currently circulating in the state. They would require employers to fire any worker without a mandatory ID card, require reporting the immigration status of hospital patients and schoolchildren, and cut off undocumented immigrants from all public services, including public schools, among other provisions.

While California has been the focal point of the storm, even in New York the state senate made a study of the cost of immigrants to the public benefit system. Immigrant organizations in the state expect the study to become the basis of proposals similar to those in California. It didn't, however, weigh the contribution of immigrants to the state's economy, and even included Puerto Ricans, all U.S. citizens, as immigrants.

Clinton could have made proposals which would have led the debate in a different direction, calling for an end to scapegoating and recognition of the important role immigrants play in the country's economic and social fabric. An administration elected with the rhetoric of inclusion, which asked Maya Angelou to recite her poetry at its inauguration, raised expectations that it might defend the poor and the immigrants against a storm of political opportunism.

Instead, its proposals to reform immigration law share the same assumptions which guide the most virulent of its competitors. The attempt to build a more respectable framework around those assumptions will be small comfort to new waves of excluded refugees, or to further victims of Border Patrol violence, who will suffer the results.

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