A new unit designed to deal with requests for political asylum is being established by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The new agents have started work in seven centers across the nation.

But critics say the offices are only half the size needed to cope with the backlog of cases, which now number more than 108,000.This raises a tough problem.

On the one hand, few people are in favor of hiring more officers and clerks and increasing the size of the bureaucracy. On the other, long delays or taking shortcuts because of the backlog could make the process unfair.

The INS already has had trouble over the way it handles requests for political asylum.

Traditionally, asylum pleas were considered by the INS with advice from the State Department. Critics say the department often injected politics into deciding such cases.

For example, fewer than 3 percent of the people from El Salvador who applied for asylum were granted that status, while people from communist countries were approved at much higher rates.

That imbalance resulted in a lawsuit against the government on behalf of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. In January, the Justice Department settled the case by agreeing to reopen applications of as many as 150,000 people denied political asylum since 1980.

Representatives of refugee groups welcome the new asylum processing unit, but feel it is much too small and needs a budget of $11 million instead of $6 million to handle the enormous number of applications.

They point out that the United States, with a far bigger refugee problem, spends less on asylum applications than France, Britain, Germany or Canada. The Canadians spend $80 million on such a program.

The extra $5 million seems like a small amount to take care of a large problem that stretches back more than a decade.

Let's get the political asylum backlog cleaned up quickly and then scale back the size of the special INS office.