The Reagan administration is preparing to test the Vietnamese government's offer to release thousands of Vietnamese prisoners from "reeducation camps" if the United States gives them asylum, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The officials said the United States probably would agree to negotiate with Hanoi on this issue despite strong skepticism that Vietnam is serious about the offer it first made in 1982 to release the prisoners, believed to number between 6,000 and 15,000.
"We would very much like to see it happen, but it seems likely at this point that nothing will come of it, that Vietnam is engaged in a propaganda exercise to counteract the damage caused to its image by the continued detention of so many political prisoners," said one U.S. official involved in the process.
The official, who declined to be identified, noted that Vietnam had not given an accounting of who the political prisoners are. He said there would have to be a provision for stringent screening to keep out undesirables such as those who came in large numbers from Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and who have been a continuing burden for the United States.
However, the official added, the administration tentatively has decided to make clear "that if Vietnam really wants to let these people go, it's not the United States that will be standing in the way."
He confirmed a report yesterday by The New York Times that the administration is working on details of a proposal for negotiations that Secretary of State George P. Shultz plans to discuss with congressional leaders.
Many of the prisoners worked for the United States or had other ties to the massive U.S. presence in Vietnam during that country's long civil war. For that reason, refugee groups and many members of Congress have argued that the United States has a special obligation to help them.
The administration's new approach was signaled in a letter written Aug. 22 by Paul D. Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of state for Far East affairs, to Roger P. Winter, director of the United States Committee for Refugees. In it, Wolfowitz said:
"I personally feel that there is almost no one more deserving of admission to the United States as a refugee than the people who are suffering because of their past association with us. Securing the release of these political prisoners is one of the foremost goals of the U.S. refugee program."
Since the communists' 1975 victory in Vietnam, the United States has accepted about 700,000 refugees from Indochina. In recent years, Indochinese immigration has been about 50,000 annually.
U.S. officials stressed that any political prisoners who might be admitted would be in addition to the present refugee ceilings.