Migration and Refugee Services
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
The Senate Subcommittee on Immigration
Presented by Ms. Anastasia Brown,
Asst. Director for Processing Operations
February 12, 2002
I am Anastasia Brown, Assistant Director for Processing Operations, Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Mr. Chairman, I thank you for inviting me to testify.
My written testimony represents the concerns of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) whose Committee on Migration is chaired by Bishop Thomas Wenski, Auxiliary Bishop of Miami, Florida. The written testimony provides a comprehensive overview of the concerns and recommendations of Migration and Refugee Services of USCCB (USCCB/MRS). However, at your request, my oral presentation will focus on the number of refugees known to be available for resettlement interviews and recommendations for reaching an admissions level of 70,000 refugees in fiscal year 2002.
Mr. Chairman, USCCB/MRS would first like to thank you for calling this hearing and for your leadership on refugee protection. Your leadership is sorely needed and welcomed at a time when the United States' commitment to protecting the persecuted has waned. USCCB/MRS would like to extend its appreciation to you, Senator Kennedy, for your tireless efforts on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers. Indeed, we can trace the very establishment of our refugee protection laws to your vision and determination, Mr. Chairman. We would also like to extend our appreciation to you, Senator Brownback, for your support of the U.S. refugee program.
Mr. Chairman, the U.S. Catholic bishops have long been committed to improving the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers. Indeed, the U.S. Catholic bishops harken back to the plight of the Holy Family, including the infant Jesus, who fled into Egypt to escape the tyranny of King Herod. Jesus teaches us that in the face of the refugee and asylum-seeker we see the face of Christ. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:35).
In response to our Lord's call, the Catholic Church in the United States, through the work of USCCB/MRS, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), our Catholic Charities agencies, and Catholic Relief Services, provides basic needs and resettlement assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers throughout the world. Through MRS, the Catholic Church resettles approximately one-quarter of the refugees who are admitted to the United States each year. MRS works with more than 100 Catholic dioceses in 44 states to resettle refugees from all over the globe. In fiscal year 2001, MRS helped to resettle 16,789 refugees in the United States, representing refugees from 102 different ethnic groups and fifty-five different nationalities. Since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, MRS, working with our government and diocesan resettlement programs throughout the country, has resettled nearly three-quarters of a million refugees.
The policy section of this testimony will focus upon the need for the U.S. Department of State and the INS to commit themselves to admitting 70,000 refugees by the end of the fiscal year and expanding the U.S. refugee program through the use of creative solutions and with the increased involvement of non-governmental organizations. The testimony also provides general recommendations that can either be pursued through legislation, regulation or internal administrative guidance and will provide specific information on overseas processing. If these recommendations are pursued in implementing the U.S. refugee resettlement program, our country will go a long way in ensuring that refugees needing and deserving refugee protection through resettlement are able to obtain it.
II. Summary of General Recommendations
In summary, we recommend the following:
- We urge the Department of State to take immediate steps to ensure that it can identify and admit 70,000 refugees by the end of fiscal year 2002;
- We urge the Department of State and the INS to undertake a number of steps to ensure that the United States is offering admission to especially vulnerable populations of refugees, such as unaccompanied refugee children, unaccompanied elderly refugees, refugees with serious medical conditions, at-risk women, including women heads of households, refugees who have languished in camps for a long period of time, certain urban refugees who do not have access to assistance and cannot integrate into the country of asylum and certain categories of refugees in Africa;
- We urge the INS to make every effort to conduct as many adjudications as are needed to identify and admit 70,000 refugees by the end of fiscal year 2002;
- We urge the Department of State to utilize non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with direct ties to domestic constituencies for overseas refugee processing;
- We urge the Department of State to engage in long-term planning and capacity-building with regard to refugee protection, including immediately planning to admit 90,000 refugees in fiscal year 2003 and increasing this admissions number in the years immediately following fiscal year 2003; and
- We urge the Department of State (including through the participation of the Secretary of State) to conduct consultations meaningfully with the Senate and House Judiciary Committees as early as possible in each fiscal year so that admissions ceilings and funding issues can be better coordinated.
III. Overview of Issues of Concern
1. Fiscal Year 2002 Refugee Admissions
We are disappointed in the number of refugees resettled in the United States in recent years. In 1980, the United States admitted more than 200,000 refugees and for a five-year period ending in 1994 the U.S. consistently admitted over 100,000 refugees each of those years. Since 1993, refugee admissions have fallen to the most recent low of 70,000 in the Administration's proposal for fiscal year 2002. The Administration should implement a four-year plan to raise admissions numbers to meet levels of need.
Millions of Africans have become new refugees or newly displaced persons within their own countries after years of war, repression, and civil unrest. Many peace negotiations have faltered, producing more military offensives and atrocities, forcing African refugees to seek protection in countries that are already suffering from armed conflict.
A compelling example is the hundreds of thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans in the small West African country of Guinea. We urge that one area of U.S. government focus be West Africa, to where a group of Refugee Council USA (RCUSA) Executives traveled in August 2001. The clear need for resettlement from such countries as Guinea, UNHCR's strong support for such resettlement, and the strengthened U.S. government and Overseas Processing Entity presence in nearby Ghana all argue that this area must be made a high priority for all of us.
West Africa is of course not the only region where refugees have difficulties accessing protection. We must deal with the populations of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran who cannot return to Afghanistan, and also address continually deteriorating situations in other areas of the world. Thousands of Burmese political dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities are particularly vulnerable in India and languish without effective solutions in Thailand. Large numbers of uprooted people from the Sudan and the Balkans still lack a durable solution. These are afew examples of the grim future faced by refugees worldwide.
United States refugee assistance helps relieve explosive international tensions and sets an example for the rest of the world. This example, in turn, makes it more likely that other nations will accept refugees fleeing into their territory, provide assistance to refugees who languish in camps in first countries of asylum, and resettle those refugees for whom resettlement in a third country is the only durable solution.
2. Admission of Vulnerable Refugees
Efforts should be made to identify and resettle particularly vulnerable refugee groups, including unaccompanied refugee minors, unaccompanied elderly refugees, refugees with serious medical problems, at-risk women, including women heads of households, refugees who have languished in camps for a long period of time, certain urban refugees who do not have access to assistance and cannot integrate in the country of asylum and certain categories of refugees in Africa. This effort complements the program's capacity to rescue those in imminent danger of return.
3. INS Adjudications for Fiscal Year 2002 and Beyond
INS conducts adjudications of individual cases based on the recommendations of the Department of State regarding caseloads. In order for INS to conduct adjudications this fiscal year and beyond for greater numbers of refugees, additional financial resources from Congress and current information from non-governmental organizations regarding individual claims and country conditions will be necessary. Given the current difficult situation in which refugees find themselves, we stand ready to work with Congress and the INS on how to continue to welcome refugees. The INS contribution, of course, will be vital, and thus planning the travel schedule to conduct adjudications of individual cases is an urgent priority if there is to be any prospect of bringing in the number of refugees authorized by the President this fiscal year and beyond.
4. U.S. Government Collaboration with Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs)
In the past, private sector Joint Voluntary Agencies (JVAs) have been successfully used by the Department of State to help identify and process refugees in the field. This collaboration with NGOs could be expanded so that NGO expertise could be utilized in making resettlement determinations.
Though the State Department has been creating more outreach capacity through the creation of additional Overseas Processing Entities (OPEs), more can and should be done. The government should develop partnerships with NGOs to assist in the identification and referral of prospective U.S.-eligible refugees in need of resettlement and create formal mechanisms through which NGO-referred refugees receive consideration from U.S. authorities. This concept is different from the "Joint Voluntary Agency" arrangements currently in place in at least one significant way. Under these arrangements the NGO partners would identify and refer prospective refugees, but would not be involved in the processing typically done by JVAs and OPEs.
Another dimension of this needed expansion could be the strengthening of the so-called "deployment" program, through which NGO personnel are seconded on temporary assignments to augment United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel in various resettlement processing regions of the world. With more resources and program management enhancements applied to this effort, a greater number of NGO personnel can be added to expand the international capacity to identify and process refugees for resettlement.
5. Capacity-Building and the U.S. Refugee Program
In each of the last ten years, the number of refugees admitted to the United States was below the authorized and budgeted admissions levels. Actual admissions of refugees during this period ranged between seven and sixteen percent below the levels authorized by the President in consultation with Congress. Had the U.S. government fully utilized its admissions authority, more than 100,000 additional refugees could have been resettled over the past decade. Considering that the population of refugees in need of resettlement far exceeds the number of resettlement offers from the international community, this under-utilization of U.S. capacity is unacceptable.
A. Political Will and Commitment
There are a multitude of reasons for this under-utilization. First, the political will and commitment to take full advantage of the U.S. government's admissions authority has not been in evidence. Until very recently, the chronic under-utilization of its admissions authority was not perceived by political leaders, in the Administration and in Congress, as a problem. Also, historically, for some in government, the level of admissions set forth in the annual Presidential Determination was not perceived as a target towards which to strive. If there had been political commitment to taking full advantage of its admissions authority, the governmental agents responsible for administering the admissions program would have been held more accountable for the chronic under usage in admissions each year.
B. Management of Refugee Admissions
Second, inadequacies in the management of refugee admissions have also contributed to the annual admissions shortfalls. Some of the problems have been as follows:
- Over-reliance on UNHCR referrals, even as that organization's capacity to identify and process refugees for resettlement consideration has been inadequate to the task and has not been a high priority;
- A lack of aggressive, comprehensive efforts to identify prospective U.S.-eligible refugees in need of resettlement;
- An inadequately proactive development of "admissions pipelines," resulting not only in admissions shortfalls, but the creation of end-of-year surges (bulges) in arrivals;
- A lack of comprehensive and viable contingencies when logistical impediments interfere with the creation and processing of "admissions pipelines;"
- Restrictive and narrowly-defined processing priorities applied to refugee groups;
- An underutilization of the priority 2 category, or special "groups of concern," for processing refugees; and
- Inconsistent INS approval rates and lack of oversight and timely interventions when negative trends appear.
Third, a significant impediment to the U.S. government's taking full advantage of its admissions authority has been the inadequacy of the worldwide infrastructures designed to identify and process refugees in need of resettlement. As the U.S. admissions program has shifted away from large scale processing operations in a few regions of the world, in place in the 1970s and 1980s, to a more diverse and dispersed caseload, a more dynamic processing capacity has been necessary. Though the State Department has been creating more outreach capacity through the funding of NGO deployments through UNHCR and expansion of OPEs, more can and should be done. A few suggestions for expanding and enhancing the capacity to identify and process refugees follow.
The establishment of formal partnerships with NGOs for the deployment of "mobile rapid response teams" is a way in which to expand the international capacity to identify and process refugees for resettlement. The Refugee Council USA has developed a number of concepts, one referred to as a "Joint Mobile Processing Team" and the other a "Rapid Response Team."The following functions could be envisioned for such non-governmental teams of experts:
- ongoing monitoring of refugee situations around the world, with a view toward identifying those refugees whose only viable option lies in third country resettlement;
- assisting UNHCR, especially in emergent and newly-created refugee situations, to register refugees and, for those in need of resettlement, develop biographical profiles and prepare documentation for resettlement consideration by the U.S. government;
- establishing or augmenting, on a temporary basis, an overseas processing operation; and
- assisting with training and technical assistance to UNHCR and other processing entities.
UNHCR personnel with responsibility for identifying and processing prospective resettlement applicants require additional and ongoing training on the mechanics of national resettlement programs and sensitization on resettlement as a viable protection tool. This training and sensitization is particularly needed when UNHCR personnel responsible for carrying out resettlement activities, including Protection Officers, also have other pressing responsibilities in large camp settings.
The U.S. government should augment, as necessary, facilities and staffing of OPEs and INS so that adjudications result in at least a three-month pipeline of travel ready (not just approved) refugees at all times. The INS should consider the creation of a Refugee Adjudication Corps, similar to the Asylum Officer Corps, which would consist of specially-trained officers who would only adjudicate refugee resettlement claims.
The U.S. government and UNHCR should create more dynamic infrastructures for identifying and processing refugees that can be more proactive and responsive to urgent developments around the world. In this regard, the U.S. government should be working to increase the number of countries who offer resettlement to refugees who do not have meaningful protection in their first countries of asylum. Certain European countries with substantial financial resources have no resettlement programs, but expect much poorer countries to keep refugees indefinitely in camps. They also compound the difficulties associated with lack of access to refugee protection by erecting barriers to asylum-seekers. The U.S. government and UNHCR should press certain European countries to develop resettlement programs or expand existing resettlement programs and should work with other countries who have expressed an interest in developing their capacities to resettle refugees.
6. The Consultation Process
As you know, cabinet-level representatives are required to consult with Members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees each year before a Presidential determination is made on refugee admissions for the coming fiscal year. Due to exceptional circumstances, consultations were not possible prior to September 30, 2001 and before the fiscal year 2002 Presidential determination was issued. In years past, the consultation process has occurred after hearings on the federal budget have been held, and in some cases, after spending levels have been determined. Most important, in recent years, the Secretary of State has not participated in the consultation process.
We would like to see these trends reversed. We ask that the Secretary of State participate in future consultations, and that this process commence earlier in the year, so that refugee admission levels and funding decisions can be better coordinated.
IV. Refugees Ready for Interviews and Admission into the U.S. for Fiscal Year 2002
As Assistant Director for Processing Operations at MRS, I would like to point out that while the aftermath of September 11th brought the flow of refugees to the U.S. to a near standstill, there has been a serious ongoing problem with meeting the refugee admission ceiling over the last few years. Refugee Council USA has raised this concern with the Department of State consistently for several years. Refugee Council USA has made recommendations on processing new groups of refugees and increasing or expanding the infrastructure to process refugees overseas. Each admission number missed in a fiscal year is a refugee forced to continue in a hopeless situation overseas.
One of the Refugee Council's greatest concerns is the relatively low number of new cases which enter the system every month. Prior to September 11th , I analyzed data available from non-governmental organizations that are Overseas Processing Entities (OPEs) and data available from the Department of State and found that while the program could technically admit 70,000 refugees in the fiscal year, there would need to be an effort to push cases through in the last few months of the year, with little or no available cases for the next fiscal year. The crisis of September 11th has compounded what was already a difficult situation regarding refugee admissions.
The U.S. program now provides virtually no access to an interview except through a referral from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Indeed in Africa, even the groups of refugees which have been designated Priority 2 "Groups of Concern," or refugees who can apply to the U.S. resettlement program without a UNHCR or U.S. embassy referral, amount to lists of persons provided by UNHCR.
The refugee resettlement agencies have also had concerns regarding other categories of refugees eligible for resettlement in the United States, including refugee claims based on a family relationship. Over the past few years the number of nationalities eligible for refugee consideration based on a family relationship to an individual in the United States has dropped from 21 to only 6 nationalities. The Department of State has indicated that it is reluctant to consider broadening this category of refugee eligibility to other nationalities due to concerns regarding misrepresentation of family relationships. There is no doubt that there are indications of misrepresentation of relationships in this program, but there are steps being instituted to address this issue. Unfortunately, some of the new measures have placed a burden on the resources of INS which previously were concentrated on the actual refugee interview. Additionally, there have been administrative deadlines implemented and criteria used which have at times appeared unreasonable or inflexible.
There are additional steps which could be taken to address the integrity of this refugee category, including the registration of refugees by UNHCR upon their arrival in first countries of asylum. This registration would be conducted outside the context of a request for resettlement in a third country. The registration process would involve the opening of a file that would include photographs of the members of the family and a list of each member's location.
The lack of adequate individual access to the refugee program has contributed tremendously to the misrepresentation issue. Individuals who have no other means to gain access to the program have been driven to asking persons who are under consideration to add family members to their cases.
Processing a refugee overseas is a complicated process involving registration, pre-screening, security name check, INS interview, medical screening, assurance of sponsorship by a resettlement agency and securing travel arrangements. From start to finish, the process can often extend over many years. The period of time from INS interview to arrival in the United States is estimated to be between 4-6 months. That said, in certain situations the U.S. program has been known to process large numbers of refugees in a very short period of time. One need look no further than the crisis in Kosovo in 1999 to illustrate this. When INS officers were not able to interview refugees in their first asylum locations, refugees have been moved to where INS could go. Guam, Fort Dix and Romania are recent examples.
I have stated that with a concentrated effort the arrival of 70,000 refugees into the country this fiscal year appears possible. At any given time there are thousands of refugees at various stages in the process of being interviewed or admitted--this is commonly referred to as the admissions "pipeline."
Assertions that there are not ready caseloads of refugees to resettle are baseless. Analysis of the most recent data from the overseas posts and the Department of State indicates that as of the end of November 2001, a pool of approved refugees from all regions of the world awaiting resettlement totaled 21,435 persons.
Reports indicate that 54,825 persons were awaiting INS interviews. An approval rate of 75 percent for INS adjudications of refugee resettlement claims is a conservative rate. If we applied this conservative approval to these individuals, that would result in 41,119 persons added to the pipeline. In addition, the reports indicate that cases were opened for 7,472 new persons in one month. Assuming another 6 months of persons being added to the interview pool, this would allow for another 45,216 persons to be interviewed. A 75 percent approval rate would add another 33,912 persons to the pipeline. In May 2001, the voluntary agencies received requests for sponsorship assurances for 8,416 refugees approved by INS. If INS were to interview at this rate for the next 7 months, 58,912 persons could be added to the pipeline and could arrive by the end of the fiscal year.
However, there are new "bottle necks" in the refugee flow not present prior to September11th. These currently are:
- Limited arrivals at ports of entry due to fingerprinting requirements;
- Delays in processing refugees whose eligibility is based on their relationship with family members in the U.S. due to new requirements, including that INS review each file;
- Delays related to the time required to obtain Security Advisory Opinions (name checks conducted by the FBI) on certain nationalities; and
- Security concerns for INS personnel conducting refugee interviews overseas.
With regard to delays associated with arrivals at ports of entry, the problem appears to be centered around the newly reinstated requirement that all refugees be fingerprinted prior to arrival in the United States. The long-term solution to this problem is to ensure that this procedure is part of the interview process overseas, as it had been in the past. In the short-term, it is necessary to ensure that INS be provided with the staffing resources and physical facilities to fingerprint arriving refugees at rates of 200 or more per flight. Historically, the use of chartered flights with several hundred refugees arriving at one time has been needed to facilitate large numbers of arrivals in a short period of time.
With regard to INS reviews of family-based refugee claims, the INS must have sufficient staff to complete this review process within 6 months in order to prepare the cases for interview or clear cases for departure from the first countries of asylum. Additionally, steps must be taken to ensure that all other possible steps are taken concurrent with the INS review to ensure that the case can be processed to completion as quickly as possible. This would include conducting security name checks, sending approved refugees to medical exams and ensuring they are kept up to date, and transmitting biographical information needed to produce sponsorship assurances. To the best of my knowledge, at this time, these processing steps are not taking place until the review of approved cases is complete.
With regard to Security Advisory Opinions, the FBI must have the capacity to complete the higher numbers of name checks required (which is considerably more than in the past) expeditiously. Additionally, the fact that the completion of these name checks is a priority to the Department of State needs to be communicated. Once again, all other steps should be completed while waiting for the results of the name checks.
With regard to secure facilities overseas for INS to conduct interviews, the responsibility for finding such secure facilities should be lodged with the Department of State. Currently, Regional Security Officers at U.S. embassies overseas are visiting interview locations and providing opinions on security. The Department of State should communicate to the embassies that locating a secure interview facility is a priority and is the responsibility of the embassyŚnot the non-governmental Overseas Processing Entity (OPE).
After the current crisis in refugee admissions is addressed for this fiscal year, it is crucial that the Department of State turn its attention to the chronic problems of the refugee admissions flow. As stated in the above recommendations and conclusion, the Department of State should strive to achieve a travel ready pool of refugees equivalent to one quarter of the refugee ceiling at all times. Infrastructure needed to process this number of refugees overseas (including staff and facilities) must be increased. Refugee flows from all regions must be monitored throughout the year, and regions should be expected to meet quarterly arrival expectations. This type of scrutiny of the admissions flow was present in the past, and returning to this practice will enable the United States to meet refugee admissions ceilings each year and maintain an even flow of refugees arriving in the country throughout the year.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, we ask that your Subcommittee work with this Administration to maintain a commitment to refugee protection that addresses the long-term, chronic and systemic problems that have resulted in refugees not accessing the protection they need and deserve in this country. In summary, we recommend the following:
Mr. Chairman, it has been my experience and the experience of countless others that refugee protection is not a burden to this country. Rather, it is an opportunity to fulfill one of the highest purposes for which this nation has been blessed-- to respond to the hope of the persecuted. We know that you and your colleagues are sensitive to these important issues and will give them due attention. Thank you for your consideration of our views.
- The Department of State must take immediate steps to identify and admit 70,000 refugees by the end of fiscal year 2002;
- The INS must make every effort to conduct as many adjudications as are needed to identify and admit 70,000 refugees by the end of fiscal year 2002;
- The Department of State and the INS must ensure that the United States is offering admission to especially vulnerable populations of refugees;
- The Department of State must utilize non-governmental organizations with direct ties to domestic constituencies for overseas refugee processing;
- The Department of State must engage in long-term planning and capacity-building with regard to refugee protection, including immediately planning to admit 90, 000 refugees in fiscal year 2003 and increasing this admissions number in the years immediately following fiscal year 2003; and
- The Department of State (through the Secretary of State) must meaningfully conduct consultations on the refugee program with the Senate and House Judiciary Committees as early as possible in each fiscal year.