WASHINGTON -- The smuggling of human cargoes and the threat of terrorism have prompted President Clinton to propose a $172.5 million plan for cracking down on illegal immigration.
The initiative is aimed at stopping more illegal immigrants at U.S. borders, deporting them more quickly and toughening criminal penalties against traffickers, White House officials said. Border patrols would be bolstered and visa checking systems would be modernized.
The Clinton administration is overhauling immigration procedures at a time when Americans increasingly are concerned about a strain on public services by newcomers to the United States.
Recent boatloads of Chinese and an immigrant Muslim cleric linked to the World Trade Center bombing further heightened pressure to relieve the overburdened immigration system.
"We must not and we will not surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice," Mr. Clinton said yesterday in announcing the action. "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."
Mr. Clinton said his proposal wasn't intended to close U.S. borders to legal migrants but to "turn away those who do not obey the laws."
He is asking Congress to approve expedited procedures for screening immigrants seeking political asylum, a backlogged system that experts say is widely abused.
Officials said they hope the hearing process can be cut to no more than five days from as long as 18 months currently. The White House also proposed doubling the number of hearing officers from the current total of 150.
About 275,000 cases are awaiting asylum hearings, a senior administration official said.
One notorious asylum-seeker's case is that of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was living in New Jersey while appealing a denial of political asylum. Several of his followers were arrested in the World Trade Center bombing and a plot to bomb the United Nations and several other targets in New York. Sheik Abdel-Rahman is now in custody.
Administration officials said yesterday that immigration officers issued Sheik Abdel-Rahman a visa "without a chance to look at all the factors that should have been looked at."
The officials said they want to expand the State Department's name-checking system to include more criminal information.
The White House initiative, spearheaded by Vice President Al Gore, also calls for adding 600 border patrol agents to the current staff of 4,400.