Features

Refuge refused

"Refuge refused" Continued...

Issue: "Gay marriage backlash," Dec. 6, 2003

Barring the doors is just one part of battening down the whole house, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Dan Kane. "Everyone-everyone-is undergoing intense scrutiny," he said. "It's hard to get into the mind of a terrorist, but for them the end justifies the means. Ruling out the refugee system and saying it wouldn't be used by the terrorist is not an appropriate assessment or evaluation."

For temporary U.S. visitors, new procedures are leading to tighter security, and more information requirements mean immigration officials have a better idea of who's coming and going in the country. Special registration begun last year for men 16 and older from 18 mostly Middle Eastern countries led to thousands of illegal Pakistani immigrants voluntarily leaving the country. Using a new foreign-student database, immigration enforcement officials have been able to identify about 4,000 who have breached their visa rules.

Foreigners applying to be refugees, however, have always undergone close scrutiny. The process usually begins with the UNHCR. The UN agency interviews most refugee applicants before they are referred to the State Department. A contracted organization compiles the refugee's case, which embassy officials check against a worldwide database containing information (such as past visa denials) that could disqualify applicants.

Then comes an interview with a U.S. immigration official, and refugees have to wait while teams fly to different locations. Only after clearing these stages does final processing begin, with more security checks if a refugee comes from a particular list of (until recently) mostly Middle Eastern countries. Those steps are necessary. The singular opportunity to come to America often leads to identity fraud, with interlopers posing as the refugees who originally applied.

Since 9/11, the United States has added more checks. Refugees are fingerprinted and photographed, and more countries are on the security list. Only 35 refugees may arrive at a U.S. port at a time, and once on American soil, they have a second interview. Along with terrorist threats that prevented immigration officers from traveling to regions such as East Africa, these new measures have slowed refugee processing.

Two years later, however, refugee advocates wonder how long it will take to smooth out the snarls. Newly reorganized immigration services at both the State and Homeland Security departments have made some inroads. Last year, immigration services trained 60 new officers to do overseas interviews, while State funded the International Organization for Migration to manage refugees' delayed travel arrangements.

"One major reason a lot of refugees aren't coming is because they aren't being interviewed," said Gary Fairchild, a World Relief refugee-processing manager. "DHS just simply won't go to certain locations to interview because of security concerns." He said Homeland Security would not send officers to Costa Rica in October to interview Colombian refugees because of a security threat. "And when you say you can't go to Costa Rica for security reasons, that's double talk to me."

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is also pressing for more haste with an amendment he introduced into the Senate's foreign operations appropriations bill. The measure would require the State Department to allow other private organizations besides the UNHCR to refer refugees to the United States, and to identify more priority groups for resettlement. Ninety days after the bill passes, the secretary of state will have to outline to Congress how his department will meet the requirements. And if State hasn't made next year's ceiling of 70,000 refugee admissions, the secretary will have to explain why.

The coming year is crucial for large agencies such as World Relief, which re-settled 16 percent of last year's refugees. The group has already shut down several of its branch resettlement offices, and will have to close more if the flow of refugees still trickles in. The United States traditionally settles 50 percent of the refugees referred by the UNHCR, so the slowdown narrows opportunity for an estimated 10 million refugees worldwide. "If we're not taking them in, it hampers UNHCR's ability to supply safe haven for refugees," Mr. Kosten said.

When Pearl became a Christian in 1998, she smuggled a Dari-language Bible to her home in Kabul and shared her faith with 18 friends. She told missionary friends she would rather die than marry a mullah. Now her advocates fear she may have been granted that wish. Ms. Buwalda said Jubilee has been dealing with six refugee cases since 9/11, and none of them has been resolved.

"I do believe that the welcome mat for refugees has been pulled," she said. "It's extremely harmful for many of the most vulnerable around the world when we don't take their cases and don't transfer them to safety. We have the tragedy of Pearl multiplied several times over and it's preventable -without compromising security."

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