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Refugee bill could pit Massachusetts against US government

Steven Worth once helped bring the anti-Vietnam war effort from the streets into legislative halls and courtrooms. Now he's applying that strategy to the issue of illegal aliens from Central America. Professor Worth, director of Northeastern University's Institute for Applied Politics, has helped write a bill that would place the state's chief lawyer in direct confrontation with the United States government. In the federal court test that would ensue, Worth says, the state would be able to show that the Reagan administration's policy on Central American refugees violates the Refugee Act of 1980.

It's a strategy he employed in 1969 and '70, when he helped push to passage a Massachusetts law that prevented its citizens from serving in an undeclared war. It also required the state attorney general to initiate legal action in behalf of Massachusetts servicemen involved in such military action (in this case, the Vietnam war).

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In July 1970 Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn sued US Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, contending that the Vietnam war was unconstitutional. That and a similar suit in Minnesota were unsuccessful. But the moves helped push Congress to pass the 1970 War Powers Act, limiting the President's power to commit US troops abroad without congressional approval.

Worth's current bill, co-written by state Sen. Jack Backman (D), would require the state attorney general to represent in deportation proceedings ``any person residing in Massachusetts who is seeking political asylum in the United States because of fear of persecution in his or her homeland.''

An unfavorable report on the bill by the Judiciary Committee was unanimously overturned in a Senate floor vote. The measure is now being considered by the the Ways and Means Committee, which could recommend funding.

This bill and the strategy behind it are backed by a long list of individuals and groups in Massachusetts who are either actively involved in or supportive of the sanctuary movement that is sheltering illegal immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala. Worth says lawmakers in at least three other states have discussed with him the possibility of introducing similar legislation.

``We know what legal means are available to us to redress inequities; what we need is to act,'' says Worth, whose center on the Northeastern campus is active in a number of social causes.

He and other advocates for the thousands of Central American refugees now living illegally in the US -- who claim they would be persecuted or killed if forced to return home -- say the government is violating its own immigration law. They point out that the 1980 act revising previous US policy brought the definition of a political refugee into agreement with that of the United Nations.

Previously, the US gave the status of ``political refugee'' only to those from ``communist or communist-dominated'' nations or certain countries in the Middle East. But the 1980 act defines a political refugee as someone with a ``well-founded fear'' of persecution because of ``race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.''

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Advocates for the Central American refugees note that the US Immigration and Naturalization Service's refugee quotas for fiscal 1985 provide for admission of 72,000 people: 50,000 from East Asia; 12,000 from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; 6,000 from the Near East and South Asia; 3,000 from Africa; and 1,000 from Latin America. While 78 percent of the applicants from the USSR and 53 percent from Afghanistan were granted political asylum in fiscal year '84, they note, 3 percent of such applicants from El Salvador and 2 percent from Guatemala were given refuge. INS officials stress that these figures apply only to the first level of appeal for asylum, and the final totals could be higher.

Worth says the purpose of his bill is ``to ensure the constitutional rights of due process, equal protection of the laws, and an evenhanded promulgation of federal immigration statutes.''

A companion bill has been introduced urging Congress and the Reagan administration to ``grant extended `voluntary departure' status to all refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, in order to allow them to remain in the United States until conditions stabilize in their homelands and a safe return can be assured.''

Massachusetts Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti has not taken a public position on the proposed law. But in a letter to the chairman of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee, First Assistant Attorney General Thomas R. Kiley said it would ``impose a new role on this department for which it is ill-suited.''

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