WASHINGTON — Restrictions in U.S. immigration policy are preventing many Indochinese refugees from entering this country, condemning them to squalid, dangerous camps where they accuse the United States of "turning its back on them," a refugee assistance group charged Monday.
Almost 300,000 displaced Cambodians in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border are "extremely vulnerable" to external attacks and to robbery, rape and extortion, said Le Xuan Khoa, president of the Indochina Resource Action Center.
Khoa, head of a five-person delegation that just returned from Southeast Asia, said people in the camps "are especially distressed" by a new Immigration and Naturalization Service requirement that they furnish original documents for identification, such as birth certificates and military records, before they are allowed to enter the United States.
A Question of Status
Khoa said he did not know how many people have been prevented from leaving the camps because of the requirement but called the number "sizable," adding that many fled their homes hastily and are unable to get the records.
Khoa and other members of the delegation also criticized a shift in U.S. policy to encourage more Indochinese to seek immigrant status instead of refugee status. Refugees are granted status if they have a "well-founded fear of persecution" in their homeland. They qualify for social benefits in the United States. Immigrants do not.
At a news conference, Khoa said that many people in the camps told his delegation they "simply do not understand why it has become so difficult to qualify for acceptance by the United States or other resettlement countries." Khoa added that many see the United States "as turning its back on them."
Both State Department and INS officials rejected this conclusion, however. Both sides acknowledge that the issue is a complicated one, fraught with competing interests. Resettlement officials and the refugees themselves want U.S. law to be liberal enough to allow easy entry to the Cambodians and other Indochinese, but U.S. officials are under increasing pressure to stop providing the social benefits, which are viewed as special treatment. Moreover, the officials point out that the government continues to carry the overwhelming burden of resettling the Indochinese.
Duke Austin, an INS spokesman, citing the prolonged warfare in Southeast Asia, said there are "a lot more people coming out of there than can emigrate" to this country.
"Our responsibility does not extend to bringing in every displaced person in Southeast Asia," he said. "There is a thing called compassion fatigue."
According to the State Department, the United States has resettled 816,000 Indochinese, including Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians, since 1975. The ceiling for fiscal 1987 is 32,000.
Khoa on Monday urged the U.S. government to expand humanitarian aid to people in the camps, but David G. Whittlesey, a refugee program official at the State Department, defended the U.S. effort, saying that the government is providing $29.3 million this year in humanitarian assistance to displaced Indochinese.