TOPICS > Politics

Doris Meissner

April 1, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: An estimated 5 million illegal immigrants reside permanently in the United States, and the number of undocumented foreigners in this country is rising steadily. There have been several attempts in recent years to stem the tide of illegal immigration. A 1968 law granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal aliens who had been in the United States for at least four years and made it a crime for employers to hire illegal workers. A 1990 law also provided amnesty for some immigrants and made it easier for others to become citizens.

SPOKESMAN: There are 97 yeahs and 3 nays. The bill is passed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The latest effort was a bill passed by Congress last year. During the debate proponents of immigration reform argued that illegal immigrants are a drain on public funds, costing taxpayers about 4 billion dollars a year in welfare and other services. And, they contended, the immigrants compete with Americans for jobs. The new law makes it easier to deport illegals and harder for foreigners to gain political asylum or legal residency.

Among the new provisions, the law provides funding to double the number of border patrol agents from five thousand to ten thousand by the year 2001; forces seekers of political asylum to file applications within one year of entry; restricts humanitarian waivers which prevented some illegal immigrants from being deported in the past; increases the number of crimes that are grounds for deportation; allows people who arrive in the United States without legitimate documents to be detained and deported without a hearing unless they can demonstrate credible fear of persecution back home; and requires U.S. citizens who sponsor immigrants to prove they can support the new residents at 125 percent of the current poverty level, or about $19,500 for a family of four. In recent months thousands of illegal immigrants have rushed to apply for legal status, hoping to qualify under the more lenient, old law. Requests for marriage licenses in Houston and Miami, among other cities, also soared as immigrants married citizens, sometimes in an effort to circumvent the new regulations. A federal court yesterday delayed implementation of the new law but an appeals court overturned that decision, clearing the way for INS agents to enforce stricter regulations beginning today.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now for an explanation of the new law we are joined by Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration & Naturalization Service. Thanks for being with us. Long lines and shotgun marriages, what are people most confused about? Today is not a deadline for anything if you live in this country, right, if you’re here illegally?

DORIS MEISSNER, Commissioner, INS: Even if you’re here illegally being in line to adjust your status does not provide any advantages under the new law. We’re not sure why people have been in line. We think there’s a great deal of misinformation about the law, a great deal of anxiety about the law. The law will change the rules, but the rules will be changed gradually.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But people might think the rules were a bit easier in some cases. For example, if you want to stay here and you are petitioning on the basis but if you’re deported, let’s say you’ve been here seven years, you have small children, your family wouldn’t be able to eat if you were deported, your wife’s here illegally, that would be easier under the old regulations than the new regulations, right, to prove hardship?

DORIS MEISSNER: The statute does deal with hardship, and it does make it much more difficult to get relief for people who have been here for a long period of time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain how. What do you have to do to prove that you have a hardship situation; that you’ve been here a long time, your wife’s here legally; she’s here legally, you’re not legal, and you’re going to be deported, that that will put them on welfare, what do you have to prove that you should be able to stay under those circumstances?

DORIS MEISSNER: It used to be the case that if you had been here for seven years and then could show to an immigration judge that leaving would create extreme hardship, you had a real possibility for being able to stay. This statute now changes it so that you have to be here ten years, and you have to be able to show extreme and extraordinary unusual hardship. And that hardship has to be not simply to yourself but it has to be a lawful permanent resident or to a United States citizen. Again, judges will hear those cases, but it is a much more difficult standard to meet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, in my story, let’s say the person had been here 10 years and they had a wife, little kids, and said that they’d have to go on welfare if this person was deported. Do you think that person would be able to stay under the new regulations or not?

DORIS MEISSNER: It’s very hard to say. These are all adjudicated case by case, and they do come before immigration judges. The judges operate according to the information that they have before them. But there is a great deal of anxiety that surrounds that because it is a tough standard.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s go through some other things people seem to be worried about. Will there be a huge rise in deportations which some people are saying they’re worried about when they come into the INS offices?

DORIS MEISSNER: Well, the INS will not be engaging in any mass deportations of any kind. We will not be taking–we will not be doing sweeps. We will not be doing round-ups, and we certainly will not be targeting specific nationalities. We will continue to deport people in accordance with what our priorities have been, which is to focus first on criminal aliens, focus on people who are employed illegally. People who are here illegally are always subject to deportation and they will continue to be, but the cases that you just cited where people are trying–are claiming hardship, people that have been here for long periods of time, the rules have changed for those people, and judges will be operating according to different standards.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about somebody who came under a work permit. Let’s say a computer programmer, an employer needed them. The work permit has run out, and they’ve applied for a green card, so that they can stay and be a permanent resident and work. But that takes a long time. That person is temporarily illegal while they’re applying, or are they? Will they be able to keep applying, or do they have to go home and start all over again under the new regulations?

DORIS MEISSNER: It depends on the circumstances. The regulations that presently exist for people who are applying in this country do not change until September 30th. There is a change that is supposed to go into effect on September 30th, which would require people illegally in the country but who are eligible for visas, would require them to go back to their country to apply for the visa. We have opposed that, and we are working with the Congress to try to change that because we believe that it is not inappropriate for people eligible for visas to be able to do that adjustment in the United States. There is some time. We’re discussing that with the Congress and there is some chance that that September 30th deadline would, in fact, disappear.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about what happens to somebody who arrives let’s say at an airport in Los Angeles, or, no, walks across the border, arrives in San Diego, and says that they’re–they’re seeking political asylum. That’s changed too. What happens?

DORIS MEISSNER: Well, actually that does not change, and people who are coming into the country and claiming political asylum may claim political asylum, but they must do so within a year in order for that political asylum claim to be heard. But starting today there is a year period and no claim for asylum would be rejected until April 1 of 1998 for people that are arriving in the country now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But somebody who arrives say tomorrow or today, it used to be that if they claimed that there was a credible fear of persecution, they could have a hearing, is that not right?

DORIS MEISSNER: What you’re actually talking about is what’s called expected exclusion, and that is the big change that is going into place today. That’s the April 1 change. Expedited exclusion applies not to people who are currently in the country. It applies to people who are arriving in the country and at ports of entry, airports, land ports, sea ports, either with fraudulent documents, with–as imposters, or with no documents whatsoever. Those people are now sent to an inspector. They are asked, and they are given a form that allows them to give us information about their circumstances. The form is very clear. It says that this country, the United States, is a country of refuge. It will provide safety from persecution or from torture for people who are fleeing. It asks whether people have concerns about returning to their country, and as people express a concern based on a fear of persecution, those people are then referred to what we call asylum pre-screening officers.

Those asylum officers are highly trained individuals that have always made asylum decisions for the Immigration Service. And they will screen those cases to determine if there is a credible fear of persecution. It’s not the ultimate decision. It’s not the decision as to whether or not the person is a refugee, but it is a decision as to whether that person can go before an immigration judge to present his case. If there is a credible fear, those people will see an immigration judge within seven days in order to decide whether they’re allowed to stay. If there is not a credible word found by the asylum officer, those people will be allowed to have their cases reviewed by an immigration judge just to be certain that the finding is the correct finding, so what we have here is an effort to balance the commitment that we have as a country to provide safety and to provide protection to legitimate refugees, balance that with a need for a more kindly decision and the ability of the government to return people to their country when they are not a refugee and avoid years of appeals just for arriving in a country with an improper document.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Commissioner Meissner, thank you very much for being with us.