- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

Your commentary piece (“Getting political asylum right,” Feb. 15) calls on the Senate to fix a system that is no longer broken. The asylum system was a vulnerability to terrorist travel and other forms of immigration abuse in the early 1990s. In 1994-95, the system was overhauled expressly to close gaping loopholes used by terrorists and others intent on gaming the immigration system.

Most cases cited in the article occurred under the old system or were denied under the new rules. They highlight a problem not of the asylum system but lack of effective removal of those whose cases are denied.

Hesham Hadayet is an example of such a case. The REAL ID Act would not have prevented the tragedy he created at El Al Airlines.

Under current law, persons coming to the United States claiming asylum are subject to mandatory detention. Those who arrive without proper documentation stay in detention until their identity can be verified. They must then demonstrate a credible fear of persecution in an interview with specially trained asylum officers before an asylum claim can be heard by an immigration judge.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the authority, which it uses regularly, to detain asylum-seekers throughout this process so they cannot pose a security risk.

Asylum-seekers undergo a full range of security checks. This includes using biometric indicators and watchlist data from DHS, CIA, FBI and the State Department.

The government also may use secret evidence with judges if it needs to demonstrate an applicant is ineligible for asylum or entry because of a potential threat to national security or information about terrorist activity or other serious crimes.

The September 11 commission properly showed how immigration and document fraud let terrorists enter this country and how applying for immigration benefits allowed them to stay while the benefit was adjudicated.

The asylum reforms took this into account by no longer issuing work authorization to applicants, the main incentive for frivolous applications, and by setting strict time limits for interviewing applicants and deciding their cases.

In sum, the asylum system is not a weak link in our nation’s immigration system. The REAL ID Act does nothing about asylum that could prevent a terrorist from harming this country that cannot be accomplished by the extensive powers federal officials now have regarding asylum.

Instead, it would harm genuine refugees by establishing additional, more insurmountable legal burdens for those fleeing political, religious and other forms of persecution. This does not make us safer and undermines the very values that are our most enduring, priceless defenses against terrorism.


Former commissioner,

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Ms. Meissner is senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

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