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U.S. Officials Aim to Admit More Refugees in 2004

October 03, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Thursday pledged to revive a U.S. refugee program that has shrunk by more than half in the last two years, chiefly as a result of painstaking background checks required since the Sept. 11 attacks.

U.S. officials will set a goal of accepting as many 70,000 refugees in 2004, said Assistant Secretary of State Arthur E. "Gene" Dewey. The goal for 2003 was the same, but fewer than 28,500 refugees were allowed to come. This time, Dewey promised, the target would be met.

"The president's intent to grow this program is a realistic intent," Dewey said. "He ... wants to do it." About 25,000 of the new refugees would come from war-torn African countries, and Dewey also raised the possibility that the U.S. may begin to accept refugees from North Korea if "delicate" negotiations involving China bear fruit.

But senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers challenged Bush to "do better" and raise the goal to 90,000. There are an estimated 13 million to 15 million refugees worldwide, and the U.S. has long been regarded as a humanitarian leader in both providing temporary assistance and permanent new homes.

"Two years have passed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a number of steps to secure the refugee admissions program have already been taken," wrote Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in a letter to the president. "We believe the inability to meet refugee admissions targets is unacceptable."

Another refugee advocate said the administration probably won't agree to the congressional request. "Realistically, it's not likely that we can get them to move immediately to a higher number," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). "But minimally, we want to make sure all 70,000 slots are used, and then get a bigger number next year."

The refugee goal is set each year in consultation between the administration and Congress. A total of 28,421 refugees were admitted in the 2003 federal fiscal year, which ended Tuesday. That was an increase over the previous year but less than half the 69,304 admitted in 2001. The gap has been a source of frustration and chagrin for humanitarian agencies, some of which have had refugee clients die while waiting to come to America.

"Time will tell whether this [new goal] is an illusory number or whether they can actually meet the ceiling," said Kevin Appleby, director of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "A lot of these people they are going to be bringing in are people who have already been approved for awhile."

Backlogs of cases are being cleared, Dewey said, and security bottlenecks opened. In the first month of the 2003 fiscal year -- October 2002 -- only 428 refugees were admitted. But by the final month -- this September -- the number had risen to 5,154. "The trend is giving us reason for optimism," Dewey said.

The problems of the last two years arose from delays in completing security checks, concerns about the safety of U.S. personnel abroad, and the discovery that many refugees were trying to bring along people who were not relatives. After Sept. 11, "we had to know who everybody was," Dewey said. "And we discovered a lot of fraud."

In Kenya, violence at a camp for thousands of Somali refugees forced U.S. caseworkers to pull out altogether this summer. But the State Department has spent $500,000 to fortify the camp, adding fences and guard towers and building an air-conditioned center that will house high-tech fingerprinting equipment. U.S. caseworkers and technicians are being dispatched to the camp.

The State Department also announced procedural changes that would increase the cases being referred to the U.S. program, such as changing the rules to allow more liberal family reunification rules, setting up special teams to handle emergencies and involving a wider range of relief agencies.

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