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Agency boss: Chávez forcing people out

By Alfonso Chardy | MiamiHerald.com

08.03.06 | The new chief of the federal immigration agency said his top concern is making sure that terrorists and other criminals are not allowed into the United States.

WASHINGTON - The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States has grown four-fold because President Hugo Chávez's government has become ''more repressive,'' the new chief of the Homeland Security agency that oversees asylum says.

''It's a phenomenon of the times we live in,'' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Emilio Gonzalez told The Miami Herald in his first one-on-one interview since the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination in December.

``Obviously, as the Chávez government becomes more repressive and more anti-democratic and starts moving down the path of totalitarianism, then you will find more and more people that have well-founded fear of persecution. So their cases then become that much more credible.''

Gonzalez, 49, also said it is unlikely the Bush administration will grant temporary residence and work permits to any other illegal foreign nationals living in the United States under the so-called Temporary Protected Status program, which currently covers 304,000 Central Americans. Haitians who left since their homeland was wracked by violence after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago have been particularly hopeful that they would gain temporary status.

BRIBERY CHARGES

At a news conference Tuesday, Gonzalez also said a government inspector general will investigate a whistle-blower's accusations that some citizenship and immigration workers were passing up fingerprint checks and accepting bribes from people seeking green cards, according to The Associated Press. The whistle-blower -- Michael Maxwell, a former agency director of the Office of Security -- sent his complaints to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

In his Monday interview with The Miami Herald, Gonzalez said his agency's priority is security, trying to make sure it doesn't approve applications for terrorists or criminals. ''I would rather have to go to a congressional hearing and explain why I delayed a certain program than have to explain why in an effort to expedite things we naturalized a terrorist,'' he said.

Gonzalez said that one of his first actions as agency chief was to create a new security and fraud directorate.

In the hour-long interview he spoke about a wide range of subjects from asylum for Venezuelans and the wet foot/dry foot policy for Cuban migrants to the congressional debate on immigration reform and how his agency might implement a possible temporary worker program.

MORE VENEZUELANS

Figures in the new 2004 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics show a dramatic increase in the number of asylum petitions from Venezuelans granted by Gonzalez's office -- 1,204 compared to 305 in 2003 and 67 in 2002.

Gonzalez, a refugee from Cuba who arrived in the United States with his family when he was 4 in 1961, also noted that his agency is gearing up to handle President Bush's guest worker program -- if Congress approves it.

It operates largely on money generated by fees it charges to process immigration applications.

As for backlogs, Gonzalez predicted that before year's end they will likely be cleared up. ''I'm very optimistic that we'll finish the backlogs on target for 1 October,'' he said. ``The most that are backlogged are the requests for naturalization and the requests for green cards because those are the ones that have the most scrutiny.''

On the controversial wet foot/dry foot issue, Gonzalez said he is ''kept up to date'' anytime a Cuban migrant interception occurs.

Gonzalez said, however, that he does not play a role in the decisions that are made on returning Cubans caught at sea. Asylum officers from his agency interview intercepted Cuban migrants.

Gonzalez said he has made his views known within the Bush administration about the wet-foot, dry-foot policy but declined to share those opinions publicly.

''Suffice it to say that I do have a seat at the table and a say in the discussions,'' he said.

achardy@MiamiHerald.com



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