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Immigration Law Tuneup

Most of the immigration reform measures passed last year by Congress were reasonable. They addressed legal loopholes that, for example, have made it possible for many illegal immigrants to make questionable claims of hardship in order to gain legal residency. Or to apply for asylum as a way of avoiding deportation.

The goal was to discourage the flow of undocumented immigrants into the US. If anything, lawmakers could have gone further - pushing employers to verify the legal status of workers.

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Reforms aimed at legal immigration were also on the legislative table last year, but proved too hot to handle in a political year. Still, legal immigrants were affected by 1996 welfare reform legislation, and that is one of two items that need fixing.

The welfare law stripped legal immigrants of access to federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps, programs that serve the poor, disabled, and elderly. The rationale, essentially, was that immigrants come to this country with sponsors committed to supporting them. They shouldn't have to go on relief. But circumstances change, and elderly immigrants particularly, who often lack the language skills to gain citizenship, can be cast adrift. Such people deserve aid, and local and state officials have decried the end of federal assistance. Congress is listening, and the prospects are good that funds will be voted to meet the need - above the $2 billion in block grants now proffered by Senate Republicans.

A second area demanding attention is asylum. As mentioned already, better checks on fraud have been built in, and there has been some beefing up of staff. But the task has exploded in size. In the late '70s, a few thousand people applied for asylum annually. In the first six months of last year, 90,000 applied. And the Immigration and Naturalization Service has to go through a huge backlog of contested cases from the late '80s, mostly Central Americans.

The key problem here remains grossly inadequate staff and facilities. Many applicants are immediately detained in prisons and jails. Sorting out legitimate asylum seekers from those hoping to defraud the system is difficult. But that doesn't justify inhumane treatment. Those most in need of asylum often have difficulty producing proof because they fled so suddenly.

American standards of justice and fairness require that pleas for asylum be treated seriously. In practice, that means more funds, staffing, and an alternative to the county jail for those awaiting a decision. The numbers of asylum seekers isn't likely to shrink for many years to come.

No issue is more packed with emotion than immigration. But these two issues - the cutoff of benefits for legal residents and adequate means for asylum screening - need to be dealt with.

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