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Out of Poland's strife, a new US immigration riddle

They live three and four together in tiny, one-room tenement "apartments" -- often heated only by small, portable oil burners -- on Manhattan's Lower East Side. They take some of the city's most menial, low-paying jobs, but work 10 -to-14 hours a day. They save their money, and send much of it back home. Though many love America, they live in constant fear of being caught and forced to leave their new home.

"They" are refugees from strife-torn Poland who are entering the United States in vastly increased numbers. They often come on tourist visas -- from cities such as Warsaw, Gdansk, Lodz, and Krakow -- and choose to remain here illegally after their visas expire.

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One local Polish American Congress official estimates that of the 30,000 Poles a year who obtain visas to visit the US, as many as three-fourths remain here illegally. They work almost unnoticed as dishwashers, janitors, and at other jobs. But they can be seen flooding local post offices with hams, red meat, and money for their food-short relatives and friends back home.

According to unofficial estimates, more Poles elect to seek refuge -- even though outside the law -- in this country than do people fleeing El Salvador. While the US State Department has acknowledged it is being "lenient" with regard to extending Salvadorans' visas, strict immigration quotas on Poles remain in effect. In 1978, the latest year for which figures are available, only 4,495 Poles were admitted to this country as permanent residents.

To escape the food shortages, threat of Soviet repression, and other pressures at home, more and more Poles are taking advantage of what amounts to a loophole in US regulations. And the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) admits it is very difficult to do anything about it.

"If they have the equivalent of $1,000 in a Polish bank they can come here to visit," says Francis J. Proch, president of the Downstate New York Division of the Polish American Congress. "And, of course, seeing what they see here, they stay here too long and try to earn some money. I would say that three-quarters of them stay longer than their visas permit; one-quarter returns. Obviously it is against the law, but there is a kind of assistance [primarily jobs] being given by Americans to the Polish people."

Here in "Little Poland", home of the largest Polish-American community in Manhattan, Polish immigrants, legal and illegal, live in a 14-block-long by five-block-wide area. They live beside first- and second-generation Americans of Jewish, Hungarian, Ukranian, and Russian decent.

While more than 600,000 people of Polish extraction are scattered throughout New York City, estimates of the number of Poles living on the Lower East Side range from 20,000 to 100,000. Like a new Ellis Island -- an island in New York Harbor that once was the chief way station for most European immigrants -- the "Little Poland" section is a potpourri of languages, foods, and goals.

Many Poles stay just long enough to eat in the section's famous Baltyk Polish restaurant. Then they grab the first bus to the other boroughs of the city or beyond to Chicago (which has a Polish population second only to Warsaw's), Detroit, and other cities with large Polish enclaves.

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Others -- like Norbert Clifton, who has been in the US for three years, attends the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, and works as an assistant cook at night -- regularly return to the area to eat, listen to news from home, and visit the New York headquarters of the Polish American Congress on bustling 14th Street to see what more they can do to support Solidarnosc,m the Polish trade union Solidarity. Mr. Clifton, here legally on an extended student visa, recently sent $100 to his family in Poland.

His remarks on the crisis in Poland epitomize much of the sentiment here: "If the Soviets fight, the Polish people will fight," he said over lunch at Baltyk. "Many Poles here in the United States are helping Poland."

Meanwhile, the number of Polish "illegals" mounts, say Mr. Proch and others who help channel immigrants through the "underground pipeline."

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