Their Teeming Shores

                       National Review 
                         Nov 1, 1993

                         Don Barnett

If you qualify as a refugee, you may find that our streets really are paved with gold.

A Refugee, according to the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, is a person who is "persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." In fact, the refugee program, which accounts for one in seven legal immigrants to the U.S., in large measure has become an expensive special-interest program, which Senator Alan Simpson calls "embarrassing to all of us who truly know the mission of the Refugee Act."

The Act was originally used to expedite resettlement of some of our allies in the Vietnam War. Eighteen years after the war we still accept about 50,000 Southeast Asians (mostly from Vietnam) each year. Last year, about 85 per cent of the refugee quota, determined annually by the President in consultation with Congress, was split between Southeast Asians and former Soviets.

Since 1975, about 1.7 million persons have been admitted as refugees (not including nearly 1 million Cubans). About 1.1 million of these have migrated from Southeast Asia, 350,000 from the former Soviet Union, and 100,000 from Eastern Europe. Some 70,000 refugee visas have been split between Africa and Latin America and another 70,000 between Afghanistan and the Mideast.

The guidelines to be used for admitting refugees require that first priority be given to a) those "refugees who are in immediate danger of loss of life and for whom there appears to be no alternative to resettlement in the U.S. or b) refugees of compelling concern to the United States such as former or present political prisoners and dissidents."

One clear sign of incoherence in the United States' refugee policy is the fact that the vast majority of refugees are admitted on the basis of family connections. Eighty per cent of Southeast Asians come in under family-reunification provisions. Most of the balance of Southeast Asian admissions are for children fathered by American soldiers - a stream which, with relatives, will total 100,000 by the time the program ends in 1994. In 1992, 37 per cent of those admitted under this program were born after the last American soldier left Vietnam.

Most ex-Soviets need not prove persecution to be classed as refugees. According to the 1989 Lautenberg Amendment, they need merely assert membership in one of several groups (Jewish, Evangelical, Ukrainian Catholic, or Ukrainian Orthodox) to qualify as a refugee. Eighty per cent of the refugee quota from Russia and its former republics goes to Jewish applicants; most of the balance is awarded to Evangelicals. But almost all the former Soviets admitted not only belong to a Lautenberg category but also have relatives in the United States - an uncle or nephew recently arrived as a refugee is sufficient in some cases to guarantee acceptance in the program.

This influx may be moderated somewhat by Israeli concern that the opportunity to migrate to America is diverting Soviet Jews from Israel. Indeed, the fact that most emigrants from the former Soviet Union can go to Israel proves that they could not possibly be refugees as that term is normally defined.

We Surrender

The United States has defined broad legal categories for refugee admission but it has surrendered all control over the selection of individuals who enter the country; that decision is the prerogative of persons in entitled categories - i.e., the prospective immigrants themselves.

Refugee admission, as we have seen, parallels the family-chain pattern of most other forms of immigration to the United States. Since citizenship is not required of the "anchor" relative, it is simply an accelerated version of normal immigration. Making family reunification the engine of immigration and refugee admission is defended both on humanitarian grounds and as a practical way to select among the great numbers desiring to enter the United States. A refugee and immigration policy committed to the reunification of extended families ensures a growing pool of automatically eligible applicants. For those eligible for refugee benefits, it is a group entitlement too good to pass up.

Because of the humanitarian nature of the refugee program, refugees are exempt from qualifications and restrictions that apply to other immigrants, who can legally be deported if they become a public charge within five years after their arrival. Besides transitional cash support and a loan for airplane tickets, refugees are entitled to the same welfare programs as U.S. citizens are.

Though the federal budget contains line items for refugee support, the bulk of the expense is borne outside refugee programs in the untrackable wilderness of state and federal social services. Since few statistics on welfare utilization account for refugees separately from the general population, the true cost of refugee support cannot be calculated. However, in 1992 the federal portion of the bill for resettlement of refugees was officially $709.3 million. The National Governors Association estimates that expenditures at the state and local levels are an additional $620 million for the first year of refugee support alone. Most refugees remain dependent well beyond a year.

A 1992 HHS study of Southeast Asian refugees who arrived between 1986 and 1991 found 52 per cent of the group to be totally dependent upon welfare and an additional 13 per cent to be supplementing earned income with welfare benefits. The average education level upon arrival of those 16 and over in the study group is equivalent to the sixth grade, placing them in the growing and increasingly unemployable unskilled-labor pool.

According to senior officials at HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement and the California State Refugee Coordinator, about 53 per cent of all the refugees who have settled in California since 1976 are dependent upon AFDC and other welfare programs. (Take note, all who would "redefine welfare as we know it.") Assigning an absurdly low per-capita carrying cost of $3,500 for yearly support through AFDC, Medi-Cal, Medicare, Food Stamps, Public Housing, SSI, etc. (AFDC per-capita cost alone in California is about $2,300) would mean that California shoulders about $1 billion a year in costs which should be carried in a column labeled "Refugee Resettlement Costs."

The California data might be expected to show somewhat higher welfare dependency than the national average for refugees owing to peculiarities in counting welfare users in California, and to the state's generous welfare benefits. However, according to the author of the statistical studies for HHS, "California is the norm," with roughly the same proportion of Southeast Asian refugees nationwide living below the poverty line, if not wholly dependent upon welfare.

Refugee flows inevitably have an impact on other immigrant categories. For instance, in 1992 the number of Vietnamese arriving as non-refugee immigrants was about equal to the number arriving as refugees. Most of the non-refugee visas were granted because of some family tie with an individual who had arrived earlier through the refugee program. A total of about 85,000 Vietnamese arrived in 1992, making Vietnam second only to Mexico as a source of immigration to the United States. With the Clinton- Gore commitment to reunification of extended families, this number can only grow.

A Turn for the Better?

The former Soviet Union and its successor republics have replaced Southeast Asia as the biggest source of refugees to the United States - 61,000 in 1992. Russia will probably head the list of refugee-sending countries through the Nineties. (Candidate Clinton promised 50,000 refugee visas a year for Soviet Jews alone.)

The educational level of ex-Soviets is high, and many assimilate quickly and successfully. But a 1991 HHS study indicates about 44 per cent of refugees from the former USSR are still dependent upon public cash assistance a year after arrival. The actual rate of welfare dependence is higher still, since the study excluded two categories: those aged 65 and over - 14.5 per cent of recent arrivals - who are entitled to SSI/Medicare, and those receiving only non-cash assistance, such as Food Stamps and Public Housing.

Analysis of 1990 Census data suggests a high use of public assistance in seemingly vibrant Russian neighborhoods in New York City. In two Census tracts in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, for instance, 24 and 38 per cent respectively of all households received public cash assistance, compared with a national average of 7.5 per cent.

An article in an April 1991 issue of the Moscow newspaper The Independent notes some of the opportunities in America. "The benefits are real. Our son attended an excellent private school for which he didn't pay a cent. Then he went to college for free.... The apartment we live in rents for half of what it should normally go for. They say you have to wait on a list for three years for government apartments like these, but there are ways to move ahead on the list. Smarter emigres will rent their apartments to dumber newcomers and pocket the difference.... My mother-in- law lives in her own [subsidized] apartment and receives a full [U.S.] pension, which surprises even me ... this is a poor man's paradise."

No one should be surprised at the demand generated by the chance to find in New York the social guarantees that failed in Moscow. Nor should it comes as a surprise to discover that socializing the costs has led to politicizing the distribution of the benefits, a feature of the system the ex-Soviets are fleeing.

Hidden from View

The refugee industry - an alliance of lawyers, government bureaucrats, church bureaucrats, charities, and lobbyists for all of the above - has shielded the refugee program from the kind of attention now being directed to immigration policy in general. Writing in the New York Times in December 1992, the chairman of the Refugee Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association cautioned against confusing ordinary immigrants with refugees, who, he says, are fleeing for their lives and "are unable to return to their country because of a real threat to life or liberty." (For the record, more than 85 per cent of refugees to the U.S. come directly from their country of origin.) In fact, a conflation of refugee policy and immigration policy is exactly what has happened. Refugee admission to a large degree is simply immigration by another name, where costs, normally incumbent upon the immigrant and his sponsor, have been shifted to the U.S. taxpayer.

The actual sponsor of refugees is Health and Human Services, an organization abysmally ill-equipped to integrate new arrivals into American life. True, private sponsoring agencies do play a role in resettling refugees. However, as with much of the language surrounding this issue, familiar terms have taken on new meaning.

Resettlement programs based on private sponsorship might be expected to provide an organic link to an established community, hasten integration into the culture, language, and economy, and provide an impetus toward self-sufficiency by placing the costs on the sponsor and the immigrant. Sponsorship implies risk, sacrifice, and commitment between sponsor and client. That ethos is totally lacking in the current program.

Most sponsoring agencies receive federal funds on a per-refugee basis - more refugees mean more income. Their main function is to guide their clientele through the process of entering various welfare programs. The sponsoring agency is not even responsible for the transportation loan for the individuals they sponsor. Since the inception of the loan program, the State Department has collected less than 31 cents on every dollar lent for air fare to the United States. A State Department spokesman doubted that even half of the interest-free loans would ever be collected. Though possibly an illustration of the entrepreneurial spirit, this does not not augur well for the revival of civic virtue supposedly heralded by the new arrivals.

There is a yearly quota for truly privately funded refugees. Ten thousand visas are made available for sponsorship of refugees by organizations and individuals willing to cover all resettlement costs and guarantee support once the refugee has settled in America. However, this route is not commonly followed. Supposedly endangered applicants often wait for years in their country of origin for a spot on the public-refugee track. In 1992, 132,000 were admitted as publicly funded refugees while only 861 came in on the private, pay-as-you-go program. Where have all the humanitarians gone? As a State Department official explained, "They tried it one year and realized it would be too expensive."

Direct federal involvement in the refugee program has followed the now-familiar pattern of rapid disengagement from the funding of the Federal Government's own mandates. On this issue even the Republicans seem willing to present a hidden cost as a cost cut. The last budget proposed by the Bush Administration proposed reducing refugee funding while breezily reminding readers that "refugees would continue to be eligible for regular welfare benefits on the same basis as citizens." This budgetary sleight-of-hand has allowed federal funding for refugee support to drop from the original three-year period in 1980 to today's eight months.

The states, faced with a mounting unfunded liability, readily lined up behind a suit brought by refugees (with the legal fees paid by the taxpayers) to enjoin the Federal Government from implementing a plan to further reduce transitional assistance to seven months and to bypass state agencies completely in the distribution of all refugee funds. Under the contested plan the money would go instead to the sponsoring agencies, known as Voluntary Agencies or Volags. (It is fitting that some of the euphemisms spawned by the refugee industry sound like the inventions of old-style Pravda editorialists.)

Concern in state capitals about the bypassing of state agencies may be dismissed as an issue of job security for a redundant level of bureaucrats, but several state refugee coordinators make a persuasive case for the inability and institutional disinclination of the Volags to follow up on refugee health problems. Thirteen per cent of refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia are actively infected with Hepatitis B, according to,the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (CDC). About 65 per cent of infants born in America with Hepatitis B are born of immigrant parents, many of whom came in on the refugee program. CDC considers immigration from high TB areas to be one of the three main causes of the recent surge of TB in America. Slightly more than one in four cases of active TB in the U.S. originate among foreign-born residents, most of whom immigrated as refugees. Also, according to CDC, drug-resistant TB is more commonly found in this group than it is among the general population of TB patients. Much of the arriving Southeast Asian refugee population has "special needs that will last well beyond the initial resettlement period," according to the U.S. Refugee Coordinator. About half of the entire Southeast Asian refugee population should be monitored to check for the spread of TB. Some health workers say that these screening and tracking programs will be compromised by the new plan.

Real Refugees

Perhaps the success of a refugee program should not be measured purely in terms of the national interest; but surely it should at least assist real refugees. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, almost no one emigrating from the former Soviet Union today is a bona-fide refugee. According to a State Department official, only a minority of Southeast Asian arrivals meet a common-sense definition of the term "refugee."

Certainly, many who arrive here on the refugee track make a valuable contribution to American life. We owe it to ourselves to structure the program to favor those who can make such a contribution. An important step would be shifting the admissions stream from public to private sponsorship. If there is to be any hope of balance and the establishment of even a rudimentary selection process, all costs must be brought home to the sponsoring agencies, the anchor families, and the refugees themselves.

For those deemed to be truly refugees, transitional funds must be provided. However, if unable to find honest money to fund the program, the President and the Congress should find the political will to reduce the numbers admitted. All funds used for refugee support should be strictly segregated from other public funds. It might then be possible to compare the effectiveness of lending a hand at rebuilding an economy (or, in the case of Vietnam, simply normalizing trade) as opposed to underwriting a mass migration. Above all, new arrivals should not be entitled to welfare on the same basis as citizens. We cannot provide a safety net for the world; we risk becoming a global welfare magnet if we try.

As it now operates, our refugee policy makes it harder for those who are truly seeking freedom and opportunity in America, and diminishes our ability to protect those who are truly fleeing persecution.

Mr. Barnett is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.