The Politics of U.S. Refugee Policy

by Nancy Myer Hopkins

Nancy Myer Hopkins is a family therapist and consultant in Bloomington, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 14, 1990, pp. 279-281 copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The nature of U.S. policy toward refugees is all too capricious.

A few years ago the United States refurbished and rededicated the Statue of Liberty, a powerful and oft-used icon of our generous and hospitable national spirit. However, in the light of the U.S. refugee policy over the past ten years, Lady Liberty may have taken on the function of a border guard. While the U.S. controls over half the world’s resources. it settles less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees. According to the World Refugee Survey 1988, it ranks only ninth in per capita giving among nations contributing to international refugee funds.

International law defines a refugee as one who must flee his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution, and who because of that fear is unable or unwilling to return. Today approximately 15 million refugees have reached countries of first asylum and are officially classed as such by the United Nations. There are also about 15 million people who are internally displaced. Many Americans mistake refugees for immigrants or illegal aliens.

U.S. law follows international law, recognizing that refugees need protection. However, our country repeatedly disregards the UN 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Congress attempted to ensure compliance by passing the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980. The accompanying table shows U.S. admissions proposed for 1990, comparing the number to be admitted from communist and non-communist nations.


Communist Noncommunist Uncertain

East Asia 51,500

Soviet Union 50,000

Eastern Europe 6,500

Near East/South Asia 2,000 (Afghan) 4,000 (Iranian) 500 other

Latin America 3,000 (Cuban) *500 (other)

Africa 2,000 (Ethiopian) 1,000 (other)

Unallocated 4,000

*In 1998, non-Cuban admissions were 210 from Nicaragua, two from El Salvador (Refugee Reports, September 22, 1989, p. 16).


Four million African refugees and 2 million South American refugees are not included in U.S. resettlement plans. Even though they fit the definition of refugee, they cannot -- with the exception of Ethiopians -- pass the ideological test of coming from a country considered "unfriendly" to the United States.

The official position on this issue seems to derive from a very selective reading of the Refugee Act of 1980 that has hardened into permanent practice. In June 1988, Jonathan Moore. coordinator for refugee affairs during the Reagan administration, wrote in a letter reprinted in a report to the chairman of the Sub-committee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs that

there is in fact a broad consensus within the Congress and the executive branch that foreign policy considerations should play an important role in the refugee admissions program. The refugee act of 1980 explicitly recognized this. . . . The administration is required to provide information to Congress concerning, among other things, "the nature of the refugee situation," "an analysis of the conditions within the countries from which [the refugees] come," "the extent to which other countries will admit and assist the resettlement of such refugees" and -- not least -- "the impact of the participation of the United States in the resettlement of such refugees on the foreign policy interests of the United States" [emphasis added].

On the contrary, section 202 (a) of the Refugee Act begins, "No person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against . . . because of his race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence." Section 207 (e) ,) from which Moore quoted, defines consultation as a discussion of "the reasons for believing that the proposed admission of refugees is justified by humanitarian concerns or grave humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest." Of the seven considerations listed, foreign policy places sixth.

This emphasis on national interest has been used to violate the spirit and the letter of the law ever since it was written. However, the numbers tell only part of the story. The Immigration and Naturalization Service seems to have found additional ways to stall, pass inequitable regulations and judge cases so harshly that even those who have some slight hope of making it into the meager allotment from Africa will not get processed during fiscal year 1990. As a result, the ceiling number for Africans (3,000) will probably not be reached.

Gemal Ali Abdi is an elementary teacher who has been on the run for nearly ten years. He has escaped from Ethiopia and been deported twice, and a good friend was killed during one of the escape attempts. His sister filed for him when he first attempted to gain refugee status in Djibouti in September 1986. Processing was stopped there before he was called for an interview. Gemal has been in Rome seeking refugee status since March 1988, but is racing against a cutoff date because he did not arrive in Rome by January 1. (There is no cutoff date for Eastern Europeans awaiting processing in Rome.) Gemal, 43, has a wife and five children in Somalia. He has a kidney disease, and his sister is afraid he will not live long enough to make it to the U.S. An interview has been urgently requested for Gemal at the U.S. Embassy, but without success.

The distinction between refugee and immigrant becomes blurred in this country because refugees who join relatives who are U.S. citizens usually receive immigrant status. Immigrants get no aid, whereas those with refugee status get airfare loans and are entitled to refugee assistance for one year after arrival. Refugees who qualify can instead request medical assistance and AFDC for two years. Drastic cuts are probable this year because appropriated federal funds do not match the admissions figures. Many refugees use very little assistance, yet it is an important safety net for those who arrive traumatized, knowing little English and facing vast cultural adjustments.

When a refugee joins a relative who has become an American citizen, the government assumes that the relative can support the newly arrived family member. The relative files affidavits of support promising not to use any public assistance. While in some situations this approach is justified, it seems to be used to stall refugees, sometimes for years, until their relatives who preceded them as refugees wait the required five years to become U.S. citizens. Like so many domestic budget-cutting efforts, this shows little sensitivity to the human cost involved.

Another difficulty is that the INS has historically been a law-enforcement agency instead of a protective one. Interviewers at this understaffed agency are not necessarily sympathetic to refugees, many of whom are frightened, are intimidated by officials, find it difficult to communicate, and have no legal representation and no right of appeal.

Dawit (David) was 15 when he escaped to the Sudan in 1987 following several incidents of harassment and imprisonment in Ethiopia. His sister filed for his refugee status in the U.S. at that time, but the INS rejected him for having "willfully misrepresented a material fact" -- which it did not explain -- during his interview conducted without legal aid. Dawit’s only appeal has been in the form of letters from his sister and those in voluntary agencies who have written to the Department of State that "Dawit was extremely frightened at the time of his interview. . . . It is difficult for a minor to articulate a well-founded fear of persecution." The INS is advising Dawit’s sister to apply for him to come as an immigrant. If that happens, his family cannot expect to see him before eight years or so.

Occasionally, intensive advocacy can turn a case around. The relatively large number of Soviet Jews who will be coming this year (40,000) represents a good third of the total of all those to be admitted as refugees. This success is due to their having a major constituency in the U.S.

The case of Pho and Dock Souvannasane is a good example of a rare successful advocacy. Their son, Detsouvanh, escaped from Laos and arrived in the U.S. in 1980. Pho was in prison at the time for having served in the Royal Laotian Army as an American ally during the war in Vietnam. Det was 21, the oldest of ten children. He has worked hard and made a lot of friends. At the same time, he did not for a moment forget his family. For years he creatively hid extra income in the caps of aspirin bottles and in syringes that he mailed to his sister, who was in medical training. In May 1986 he became an American citizen, and at about the same time his family escaped to Thailand. Det’s siblings were granted refugee status in the U.S., arriving in December 1988. However, his parents were delayed, and eventually they learned that they would have to come as immigrants. Months went by without news. The children, four of whom were minors, attempted to adjust without their parents to their first winter in Minnesota.

Finally the children learned that upon review of the case, officials had decided Det did not make enough money to support his parents. This meant that they would be delayed indefinitely. This so frustrated and outraged all who had cared for the family that they pulled out all stops. The two churches that sponsored the children (a United Church of Christ congregation and an Episcopal congregation had worked through a Lutheran agency) signed additional affidavits of support. They contacted members of Congress and sent letters and telegrams to government officials. They informed the news media. The effort led to a stunning and unprecedented reversal, allowing the elder Souvannasanes to obtain refugee status and enter the U.S. in November 1989.

The treatment of refugees from countries in this hemisphere is even more disturbing. Hysterical media coverage of illegal aliens, fear of losing control of our borders and popular perception that drug trafficking and the entry of "undesirables" are related have made many Americans indifferent or punitive toward people who seek asylum.

Ironically, while the U.S. criticizes those who are violating the human rights of Cambodians who have long lived along the Thai-Cambodian border, it detains Salvadorans and Haitians in prison camps. The detention centers are far removed from populated areas, offer limited access to legal assistance, and often cause the separation of families. The thousands who do return home face certain persecution or death.

U.S. policy of interdicting Haitians at sea and returning them to Haiti is not unlike that of those who have turned back the Vietnamese boat people -- and thus received loud condemnation from the U.S. Since 1981, 20,000 Haitians have been interdicted, and only six have been allowed to pursue asylum claims. All are assumed to be merely economic migrants with "frivolous" reasons for seeking asylum.

How will recent events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union affect refugee resettlement? The processing of Soviet Jews is reported to be so far along that the allotted 50,000 will be resettled by spring. Processing of Poles and Hungarians will undoubtedly end, except for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. The Romanian situation is still questionable, but the country’s full allocation will probably be honored. Congress may have to establish a new status of "not-quite refugee" to have an equitable policy for those coming out of Europe. It remains to be seen if the fewer number of refugees from Europe will allow more to come from Africa, or if their places will simply be eliminated.

Churches and synagogues have devoted substantial funds and millions of voluntary hours to refugee resettlement. Those who have become involved find the work immensely rewarding. Many churches also contribute to a very effective advocacy organization, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (whose publications are excellent)

Those wishing to advocate on behalf of any refugee issue can start by writing to Congress. Senator Edward Kennedy is chairman of the subcommittee that creates legislative reform; Representative Bruce Morrison is his counterpart in the House. President Bush has stated that he will attend to refugee concerns, and letters to his office could prod him. A new refugee coordinator, Jewel Lafontant, oversees the participation of the various government agencies involved. Refugee settlement is a large and complicated bureaucratic pie, but there is good reason to hope that Lafontant may be up to the important task of humanizing the system. Lady Liberty must be blushing. I pray that she will cease merely to obscure reality and will again express the American spirit.