Bishop of Camden
Chairman, NCCB's Committee on Migration
August 4, 1999
I am Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Bishop of Camden, New Jersey, and chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration. It is a pleasure to testify before you today on the vital humanitarian topic of refugee admissions to the United States.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and ranking Minority member Senator Edward M. Kennedy, for your long support for refugees. I know that Senator Kennedy is one of the authors of the Refugee Act of 19801 and that you both have championed the cause of refugee protection and resettlement throughout your tenure in the Senate. Your work, and that of this Subcommittee, has resulted in protection for literally millions of refugees over the years.
Mr. Chairman, Church teaching has long supported the protection of and respect for the right of an individual to live in security and to flee life-threatening situations, particularly those stemming from political oppression and persecution. In 1974, Pope Paul VI succinctly articulated the position of the Church in this regard:
Individuals and groups must be secure from arrest, torture, and imprisonment for political and ideological reasons, and all in society, including migrant workers, must be guaranteed juridical protection of their personal, social, cultural and political rights. We condemn the abridgement of rights because of race. We advocate that nations and contesting groups seek reconciliation by halting persecution of others and granting amnesty, marked by mercy and equity, to political prisoners and exiles.
In line with our teaching, the Catholic Church in the United States has long welcomed immigrants and refugees to our shores. Since the Refugee Act of 1980, Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) of the U.S. Catholic Conference, working with our government and Catholic diocesan resettlement programs throughout the country, has resettled some 650,000 refugees. That is nearly 32 percent of the total, more than any other single agency. As Executive Director of MRS from 1985 to 1991, I supervised the agency's work and am familiar with the service provided refugees both abroad and when they come to our country.2As you well know, Mr. Chairman, refugees are migrants with a tragic difference. Driven outside their country, refugees cannot return home for fear of persecution. Having already suffered, sometimes unspeakably, they often face years in crowded, primitive, dangerous refugee camps. Eighty percent are women and children. For some of these people, whether they be fleeing Bosnia, Burma or Afghanistan, resettlement in a third country may be their only hope for a life of peace, dignity and hope.
And yet the United States Government has been sharply curtailing its response to refugees in America. For 1991, the year I ended my term as head of MRS, our government set a ceiling of 131,000 refugees from around the world to be admitted to the United States. Now, as I return to refugee work as Chairman of the Bishops' Migration Committee, I am disappointed to find that the admissions limit has been lowered by over 40 percent. Over a longer time, refugee admissions into the United States have dropped even more drastically, from 207,000 in 1980 to a ceiling of 78,000 for 1999. This reflects a disturbing trend, especially considering the existence of more than 13.5 million refugees in the world today.3
I am pleased, therefore, to see that the Administration is requesting a modest increase in the refugee ceiling for FY 2000, which represents a welcome start in redressing an unfortunate downward trend. However, it is clear, Mr. Chairman, that U.S. leadership in the area of refugee protection is in decline. Whether because of a shift in how we strategically view the world since the end of the Cold War, or reflective of a decision by our leaders to turn inward, the United States is increasingly abdicating its worldwide leadership role in refugee protection. It is our view, Mr. Chairman, that our refugee policy should be reexamined to adjust to the post-Cold War realities in the world and to restore the United States' international role as a protector of human rights. Such a policy change would serve not only humanitarian goals, but also U.S. foreign policy interests.
The Resettlement Option
There are three options, or internationally-recognized "durable" solutions, which should be pursued in any refugee situation: return of the refugees to their homeland if conditions permit; integration into the neighboring country which receives them; or resettlement in a third country. The best solution for refugees is that they return home safely and voluntarily, or, in the alternative, resettle in the country of "first" asylum or within the geographic region. But for those with no other option, resettlement in a third country, such as the United States, should remain a viable alternative.
Not all refugees want or need resettlement in a third country. In fact, less than one percent of the world's refugees ever gain permanent residence elsewhere. For many of them, however, it often represents the only alternative to years of confinement in a refugee camp or a dangerous, uncertain existence as outcasts in countries that do not want them. To consign refugees to such unfortunate circumstances is, indeed, intolerable.
When the United States accepts refugees, we protect those involved, reduce the chances that "first-asylum" countries will send refugees back to their persecutors involuntarily, and provide the leadership necessary to encourage other wealthy nations to accept refugees. By so doing, we also reaffirm a tradition of compassion that separates us from much of the world.
There are those who question whether sufficient need exists to warrant an increase in U.S. refugee admissions. For those who hold this view, I recommend a document recently released by the Committee on Migration and Refugee Affairs (CMRA) of InterAction, "U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Fiscal Year 2000." The document, prepared for this year's refugee admissions consultations, clearly demonstrates that, despite the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, from which the majority of refugees entering this country used to come, the violent situations around the globe that spawn refugees have not diminished but increased. One need look no further than the former Yugoslavia for confirmation of this unfortunate reality.
Mr. Chairman, during the Cold War most Americans felt a moral obligation to offer resettlement to those fleeing Communist regimes, whether Eastern Europeans or Cubans or Indochinese. The same moral sense should move us to take a similar view of today's victims, whether from the Sudan or Burma or Iraq, who are also fleeing dangers of great magnitude.
Refugee Populations Globally
While the CMRA admissions document presents an excellent summation of resettlement needs, I would like to highlight for the subcommittee several compelling refugee situations around the globe and several special refugee populations deserving of protection.
The resettlement needs of Africa as a whole, where there are now some six million refugees and displaced people, are far from being met, even after the welcome increase in our ceiling for African refugee admissions from 7,000 to 12,000 for fiscal year 1999. Conflicts in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Congo-Brazzaville are producing refugees who are victims of violence and torture and have little hope of returning to their homes in the near future.
Last year my fellow bishop, John W. Yanta of Amarillo, Texas, visited Kakuma camp in Kenya, where he found 55,000 refugees, mostly Sudanese. Many had been there since the camp opened in 1992. Since then, the world has seen the grisly spectacle of civilian victims, mostly women and children, fleeing Sierra Leone with arms and legs cut off. Other refugees are scattered all across the continent.
Just recently, for example, 30,000 people fled fighting in the Congo Republic into neighboring Gabon. Because of a lack of infrastructure, food resources, and political stability in their country, many Liberians who fled violence in recent years remain unable to return to their homes. And Sierra Leone continues to produce refugees at a steady rate, burdening neighboring countries and overwhelming the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and private organizations attempting to meet the needs of over 500,000 refugees.
MRS and its coalition partners have, for some years, urged the State Department to increase the intake of African refugees through the U.S. refugee program. While the approved ceiling for African refugees has increased, there has been concern in the past that the actual processing of African refugees has regularly fallen short of approved ceilings. This has not been due to a lack of need but rather to a failure to develop adequate processing mechanisms in Africa to identify and process those refugees who fall within the processing guidelines for admission to the U.S. Refugee program. We expect that, in the future, the need for resettlement of refugees from Africa will continue to be high and that the ability to identify and process such refugees will grow, resulting in increased admissions from that region of the world.
- Southeast Asia
The United States has provided leadership over the past two decades in resettling refugees from Southeast Asia through the Indochinese refugee program. During the last days of Saigon to the present day, the United States has brought to our shores for protection well over one million people with whom we served and fought.
Now, as we bring this highly successful program to a close, we would like to assure fair treatment for those relatively few cases which remain. Prominent among these are our former U.S. government employees. These are U.S. Embassy and other U.S. agency employees with five years or more of service to our country in Vietnam. Because of their association with the United States, many have been persecuted since the fall of Saigon and are entitled to an appropriate and fair review of their cases.
Despite this fact, approval rates for former employees plummeted to less than two percent in 1996 and 1997. In light of the background of the applicants and the intent of the program, such a result is unacceptable. After strong expressions of concern from senior members of Congress and nongovernmental organizations over the past months, the Department of State has agreed to open processing for those former employees not yet adjudicated. We urge the Subcommittee to continue to encourage the State Department to review the denied cases, and to institute procedures for all cases that will assure their consideration in a fairminded manner.
- Unaccompanied Refugee Minors
Unaccompanied refugee minors represent one of the most vulnerable groups of refugees, susceptible to military conscription, sexual and physical assault, trafficking, and other forms of abuse and violence. Thousands of unaccompanied refugee minors, some of whom have lost their parents to conflict and are orphans, today are spending their childhood years in refugee camps. In recent years, despite our great resources, we have welcomed only a tiny handful of these children to our country. During Fiscal Year 1997, the United States accepted only one unaccompanied refugee minor for resettlement and only eleven unaccompanied minors in Fiscal Year 1998.
For many months now, MRS has been working with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), UNHCR, and the State Department to establish a carefully-considered program to increase this number, resettling children initially from Africa. In June and July 1998, USCC, LIRS, and UNHCR undertook a joint mission to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to identify unaccompanied minors and investigate and recommend procedural methods for referring minors for resettlement. The joint mission identified a group of southern Sudanese youth --commonly referred to as the "lost boys of Sudan"-- who share a refugee experience of persecution. Most left Sudan as children in 1987 for Ethiopia to escape the civil war killings of family members and starvation. They experienced further trauma in 1991 when they were forced back to Sudan and subsequently fled again, this time to Kenya in early 1992. During this period, many of these Sudanese youth were forcibly recruited into revolutionary military groups. Mr. Chairman, these young people, who have experienced severe trauma and dislocation, hold no hope of normal lives without an opportunity for resettlement in a third country such as the United States. With your consent, Mr. Chairman, I would ask that the final report of the Joint Mission to Kakuma Camp be included in the hearing record.
Considering the special vulnerability of this refugee group, USCC/MRS recommends that the United States accept at least 500 of these minors in Fiscal Year 2000. I know, Mr. Chairman, that a U.S. program assisting minors can be successful because, in the 1970s, I established the first unaccompanied refugee minor program in New Jersey. We welcomed over 500 children during the program's life, and the success stories that resulted from our efforts were truly impressive.
- Other Special Populations
Other special populations deserve consideration for resettlement. For example, there exists a large, unknown number of "women at risk" among the world's refugees who represent prime candidates for admission under the U.S. refugee program. They range from Afghan women and girls denied access to medical treatment and prohibited from attending school by the Taliban to orphaned Rwandan girls who are heads of households and caring for their siblings. They also include young girls and women fleeing targeted mutilations in Sierra Leone and Chinese women fleeing forced abortions and sterilization. Many of these women and girls belong to societies whose cultural practices make it hard for them to receive the protection they need and deserve. Other vulnerable refugees include the elderly without family to care for them, people with medical impairments, and boys in danger of forced military conscription.
Many refugees today, by contrast, are in smaller, scattered camps or living on their own, making it more difficult to identify and interview them. The State Department is aware of this obstacle to our refugee-processing efforts and is working to overcome it. In the coming weeks, our agency and others hope to offer the State Department our own suggestions for improvements in this vital area.
The U.S. Asylum System
At the same time the United States' commitment to refugee protection abroad needs to be strengthened, domestic laws which govern those who make it to our shores and request protection are overly restrictive and unjust. As the Chairman and this Subcommittee is aware, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)4 served to weaken asylum protections for those who arrive at our ports of entry fleeing persecution.
Specifically, the 1996 law created the procedure of "expedited removal," which empowers low-level Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) inspectors summarily to remove potential asylum-seekers without a hearing before an immigration judge. Under this procedure, more than 76,000 individuals were removed from the United States during Fiscal Year 1998. While lack of sufficient data and accessibility to interviews conducted by inspectors prevents specific conclusions, it is likely that in the past few years the United States has returned to their persecutors asylum-seekers with valid claims to protection.5
Other legal and policy changes, such as a one-year filing deadline for asylum claims and the detention of asylum-seekers who have articulated a credible fear of persecution, contribute to the erosion of protections under the U.S. asylum program. Having jurisdiction over these issues, Mr. Chairman, we respectfully ask you and the subcommittee to review the provisions of the 1996 IIRIRA law affecting asylum-seekers and consider their repeal. In order to restore U.S. leadership in refugee protection, the Congress and the Administration also must restore U.S. commitment to the concept of asylum.
The Capacity Question
Many agree that there is a real need in the world to resettle more refugees. But what about our capacity to absorb more refugees? Has not our long involvement with Indochinese, Bosnians and other refugees produced a variant of compassion fatigue?
Not at all. Our own programs find no lack of American families enthusiastic about sponsoring and assisting refugees. One indicator is the magnitude of the cash and in-kind contributions that come through our dioceses -- resources that supplement the modest but welcome government outlay. Last year these contributions amounted to some $12 million, all coming from ordinary (or should I say extraordinary) working Americans. Our colleague refugee resettlement agencies report the same generous enthusiasm.
For those who question the commitment of the American people to refugee resettlement, Kosovo provides a ringing response. The overwhelming demonstrations of support and offers of aid from the public to the Kosovars have been well documented. Agencies, including ours, were deluged with offers of assistance for the Kosovars to whom our government offered protection. When Americans see people in desperate need, they are quick to help. We are convinced that, if our public were shown the sufferings of the Sudanese in Kenya or the Burmese in Thailand in same detail as they witnessed the desperation of the Kosovars, they would react in the same generous way.
Furthermore, the agencies, including MRS, which partner with the government to provide initial resettlement services are prepared to accept a larger number of cases. During the Kosovo crisis, nongovernmental organizations and the government worked as a team to ensure that all
Kosovar refugees brought to the United States were unified with their families and into local communities in an expeditious manner.
Lessons of Kosovo
It has become increasingly evident that the U.S. response to the Kosovo refugee crisis helped reduce the suffering and save the lives of many of the refugees. The coordinated action to facilitate evacuations from Macedonia; the offer of resettlement to 20,000 Kosovars as refugees; the decision not to use Guantanamo Bay as a temporary processing point; and the promise to facilitate and fund voluntary repatriation all represented appropriate responses to an emerging humanitarian crisis. This model of protection should be applied to similar situations around the globe which produce refugees but do not draw media attention.
Just as we can be proud of our response to the Kosovo refugee crisis, we can draw from it important lessons for the future. First, Kosovo teaches us that U.S. leadership is crucial in ensuring that the international community responds to refugee situations. The United States' commitment to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees in the early days of the crisis helped precipitate the offers of temporary asylum from European allies and other nations. In the end, only 11,000 refugees arrived in the United States, many of whom will now be returning to their own country. But the United States' important gesture helped assure protection for many more.
Second, the resettlement option can serve not only our humanitarian interests but also U.S. foreign policy goals. In particular refugee situations, evacuation and resettlement reduce the chances that countries of "first asylum" will send refugees back to their persecutors or close their borders, further destabilizing a war-torn region. For example, our announcement of 20,000 places for Kosovars helped reassure the Government of Macedonia, at a critical moment, that it would not be left alone to cope with an unbearable burden. Accordingly, the evacuation by the international community of refugees from Macedonia allowed that country to continue to accept Kosovars crossing the border: despite an initial statement that it would not allow in more than 20,000 Kosovars, Macedonia eventually provided protection for over 240,000 refugees. The United States helped make that happen.
A third lesson from Kosovo is that the partnership between the U.S. Government and the voluntary agencies which assist it in the resettlement of refugees is alive and flourishing. We and our resettlement agency colleagues showed once again that, when we are asked to respond to a refugee crisis, we have the capacity, resources and enthusiasm to do so. Agencies were given only several days to staff the reception center at Fort Dix and ready our networks across the country for thousands of Kosovars. I was at Fort Dix this past May 7 to greet the second flight of Kosovar refugees, and I can assure you that, on that day and subsequently, our public/private collaboration worked.
Fourth, Kosovo reaffirms the truth that refugees rarely want to leave their homes, but are compelled to do so out of fear. If circumstances allow for their safe return, they go home.
Fifth is a lesson to which I already alluded: during the Kosovo crisis the myth that the American public does not support refugee resettlement in the United States was dispelled. Once educated, Americans respond positively to the cry of the refugee.
While there are many lessons from the Kosovo refugee crisis, there remain several troubling questions. Many have asked why, for example, the United States and other nations did so much for the Kosovars when so much less is done for refugees in places like the Sudan, Sierra Leone, and the Congo, where long-running crises have condemned millions of people to misery and death. I would put the question another way: Why can we not more often summon the strength of will and generosity of spirit that marked our Kosovo refugee effort? Do we respond to a refugee crisis only if we are militarily involved in the conflict that spawns it? Do we respond to a crisis only when it grabs the attention of the media and subsequently the nation?
As a nation which should be committed to the cause of human rights globally, we must consider these questions. Part of the answer may come back to U.S. leadership, which must involve not only the Administration but also Congress, the media, and other powerful voices in our society. History has demonstrated that courses of action designed to end these ongoing tragedies can attract the required public support if they are well considered and if the need is adequately explained.
Mr. Chairman, the United States must continue to exert leadership in refugee affairs. Otherwise, experience shows that the level of attention given to the world's refugees and displaced persons will surely fall. Leadership includes directing the international spotlight to situations of intolerable human suffering and mounting efforts to end them. On behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops, let me conclude with several recommendations on how we might better execute our leadership responsibilities:
- Our great country, which is undergoing a period of unprecedented prosperity, should today be accepting at least 100,000 refugees per year.
- The U.S. Refugee Program must continue its past emphasis on family reunification.
- The State Department, assisted by the voluntary agencies, should continue the search for innovative ways to identify and offer resettlement to refugees in situations where access to them is difficult.
- Congress should strengthen the U.S. asylum system.
The immediate need is to reverse the steady, eight-year decline in our refugee admissions ceiling. For Fiscal Year 2000, the United States should also accept at least 500 unaccompanied refugee minors, redouble our efforts to relieve suffering in Africa by increasing our refugee admissions from that continent, and expand our efforts to identify and find durable solutions for refugees who are especially vulnerable, including women at risk, the elderly without families, and those with medical impairments.
Some argue that refugees with refugee relatives in the United States (designated P-3, P-4, and P-5) are not "real" refugees. That is wrong: all refugees must satisfy the same criteria. Nor do refugees who are relatives displace others more deserving; in fact, their very designation puts them in line behind those who are P-2, the designation given refugees in groups who are "of humanitarian interest to the United States," and those who are P-1, in immediate danger. On the positive side, refugee families resettle better when they are together. Preserving families should remaina key objective of U.S. refugee policy.
The State Department and the voluntary agencies assisting in resettlement processing overseas should renew their dedication to a working partnership which results in processing that is fair, efficient, and cost-effective. The voluntary agencies have a legitimate and necessary role, for which there is no adequate substitute. They improve the fairness of adjudications by providing an outside voice, offer assistance in case preparation that is flexible and cost-effective, provide a smooth interface with the domestic resettlement agencies, and bring to the U.S. refugee program the support of important religious, ethnic, and humanitarian constituencies. The public/private partnership that this collaboration constitutes must continue and be strengthened.
"Expedited removal," the procedure whereby low-level Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers at ports of entry summarily deport asylum-seekers back to the country from which they traveled, should be repealed, and judicial review of asylum claims restored. The one-year filing deadline for asylum claims for those who reach our country, which is insufficient for many who are unaware of the law, also should be repealed. Asylum-seekers who articulate a credible fear of persecution should not be detained unless they are a threat to society.
- The United States should increase assistance for refugees overseas, with a special emphasis on Africa.
The UNHCR, the international humanitarian agency which assists refugees with life-sustaining support overseas until they are able to return home, cannot do its job properly when it is underfunded, which is the condition of many of its specific programs. While it is right for us to expect other nations to pay their fair share, it often is U.S. leadership which encourages them to meet their obligations. At a minimum, Congress should appropriate full funding of the Administration's Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) and Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA) requests.
- The United States should redouble efforts to seek peaceful settlements to wars in countries like Sudan, Angola and the Congo Republic.
Mr. Chairman, it is the view of the U.S. Catholic bishops that the United States must make a renewed commitment to refugee protection globally. By so doing, we serve our own vital interests and act as an example to other nations. Perhaps more importantly, we honor the democratic values we espouse, continue a tradition of compassion which has long characterized our nation, and offer a beacon of hope to suffering refugees around the world. As a model of democracy and freedom to millions worldwide, we can and must do more to provide safe haven to those who flee persecution.
On behalf of the nation's Catholic bishops, I thank you and your colleagues on the Subcommittee for allowing me the opportunity to present our views and for your leadership in this important public service.