WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, responding to the public's widespread fear that the United States' immigration policy is out of control, called on Congress yesterday to take specific steps to keep terrorists and undesirables out of the country, severely punish those who smuggle aliens and reduce the vast number of illegal immigrants pouring over the borders.
"We cannot tolerate those who traffic in human cargo, nor can we allow our people to be endangered by those who would enter our country to terrorize Americans," the president said.
Mr. Clinton asked Congress to appropriate $172.5 million in new funds, most of which would go to hiring 600 more Border Patrol agents and upgrading communications technology and management so that the State Department can communicate with the consulates in order to keep those identified as dangerous from obtaining visas.
An increase in immigration inspection and other fees and a surcharge on machine-readable visa applications would cover $87 million of the cost, the White House said. The rest has already been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committees and is working its way through Congress.
The president also proposed using government racketeering statutes as a way of coming down hard on the "coyotes" who charge money to lead immigrants across the Mexican border or the sophisticated Chinese gangs boating people halfway across the world.
Finally, Mr. Clinton wants to streamline procedures for granting asylum to refugees so that every would-be immigrant who claims to be escaping government persecution is not necessarily guaranteed a court hearing. Some would be interviewed by immigration officials at their port of entry, and, if their claims were determined to be bogus, sent home.
A group of immigration lawyers immediately characterized the change as "an overreaction" that would result in the deportation of legitimate refugees, but the president's reforms appear to have the backing of the widest ideological spectrum in Congress.
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a conservative New York Republican, attended the White House announcement and praised the bill. So did Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who said the present asylum procedures are "a mockery."
Because Congress has decreed that the United States should serve as a haven for those who face persecution in their own nation because of religion, political beliefs or ethnicity, some illegal immigrants from places such as Central America, the Middle East, China, Cuba, Haiti, Ethiopia and other troubled nations simply ask for asylum when caught.
This claim puts them in an entirely different administrative category at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They are free to live in the United States until a formal hearing is held, a process that takes months because of a backlog estimated at 300,000 cases.
Vice President Al Gore, who formulated the new procedures, noted yesterday that many who claim to be refugees do not even show up for their hearings. They simply vanish into the huge immigrant undergrounds of major U.S. cities.
The potential for abuse was brought home to administration officials recently when the freighter Golden Venture ran aground of New York City last month carrying hundreds of undocumented Chinese reportedly being smuggled into the country. When apprehended, many applied for asylum, some on the basis that China's population restrictions would leave them open to persecution if they decided to have more than one child.
Sensitive to charges of prejudice and to the fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants, Mr. Clinton, like the members of Congress who attended yesterday's announcement, took pains to insist that the United States will not "close our borders."
Recent public opinion surveys, however, show that an overwhelming number of Americans believe the nation should curtail immigration.
This view does not appear to be primarily based on racial fears, either: The polls found that Mexican-Americans wanted immigration restrictions -- even though Mexico has sent more immigrants in the last 12 years than any other nation.
Events since Mr. Clinton took office have exacerbated some of these feelings.
Authorities identified an illegal Pakistani immigrant as the prime suspect in the terrorist shootings of several Northern Virginia motorists outside the CIA on Jan. 25.
Even more recently, the FBI has identified Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a radical Islamic cleric from Egypt, as likely linked to suspects arrested in the World Trade Center bombing and a foiled plot to bomb other New York locations, including the United Nations.
If the procedures outlined by the president yesterday had been in place, the sheik, who was known by State Department officials to be associated with militants back home, likely would never have been allowed in the United States.