Recent images of Chinese peasants swimming ashore in New York from a grounded freighter and revelations of Byzantine human smuggling rings have given new urgency to calls to overhaul the political asylum process, which critics charge encourages illegal immigration to the United States.

"The problem has been festering for years, but these Chinese slave ships have made inaction indefensible," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and refugee affairs, said in a statement. "The asylum system has broken down, and it's up to Congress and the administration to fix it."

An aide said Kennedy plans to introduce soon a bill to broaden immigration officers' powers, streamline asylum claims and stiffen penalties for smuggling rings. Three such bills are being considered by a House subcommittee.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and numerous immigration interest groups also have proposed changes. But while all sides agree that the current system -- which allows illegal immigrants and asylum applicants to work in the United States for years until their cases are adjudicated -- is overburdened and inefficient, they disagree on how to fix it.

INS officials say mandatory detention of immigrants awaiting a hearing would be a strong deterrent to "frivolous" asylum seekers, who come not to escape political persecution but to make money.

"The best way is to actually hold the people in detention, and word will get back," INS spokesman Richard Kinney said. In a test of this policy, more than 200 Chinese rescued from the freighter Golden Venture last week were sent to facilities in Virginia and Pennsylvania because New York detention centers were filled.

INS officials said similar detention policies helped to curb illegal immigration from Central America in the 1980s. But Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said detention alone is not enough.

"We need a fundamental analysis of whether it's possible for us to have a full-blown hearing and adjudication for everybody who achieves presence in the United States," Stein said. "The question is whether or not we're going to empower the attorney general and her designates to summarily adjudicate and exclude" immigrants.

A "summary exclusion" policy, which would give immigration officers power to deport on the spot illegal immigrants caught at U.S. borders, runs the risk of rejecting bona fide political refugees.

But with the current system mired in administrative quicksand and suspicion focused on illegal immigrants in such high-profile incidents as the shootings outside CIA headquarters here Jan. 25 and the World Trade Center bombing Feb. 26, the idea of summary exclusion is increasingly attractive to some advocates of change.

Others say more money is needed for the INS, which despite its $1.5 billion budget has only 150 asylum officers to handle a backlog of 260,000 cases that is expected to grow to 300,000 by year's end. Congressional sources said President Clinton could dip into a never-used $35 million immigration emergency fund to bolster INS enforcement efforts.

"The asylum problem boils down to one big problem: money," said Michael Maggio, a Washington immigration attorney, who estimated that it costs $65 a day, almost $24,000 a year, to detain an illegal immigrant until a deportation hearing. "If you want to have asylum applications processed promptly, it's like anything else. You've got to pay somebody to do it."

Compounding the shortcomings, detractors said, is the fact that Clinton has yet to appoint a single INS official or state an immigration policy despite his frequent criticism of Republican policy during the presidential campaign.

"The failure to have someone down there {at INS} is certainly evidence of the lack of attention to the needs of that department and to the needs of the nation regarding the immigration issue," said Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on international law, immigration and refugees and author of one pending immigration reform bill.

But reformers said the image of the six Chinese who drowned off a Queens beach in the New York media spotlight has focused attention on illegal immigration and may force the administration to push quickly for reform.

"There's a lot of interest in a lot of quarters that didn't exist earlier, so the auguries are better than they have been in some time to accomplish something," Mazzoli said.