The Daily Demarche
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Refugees in America- Part One
Reading some of the State Department output today I had an inspiration to combine three of my favorite topics on the Demarche- immigration, public diplomacy and foreign aid. We’ve covered all of them on many occasions here, generally as distinct issues. I have referred to the remittances sent back to native countries by immigrants both legal and illegal, but never touched on tonight’s topic: refugees. This is the first of at least two posts on refugees, tonight I am focusing more on the background of the U.S. refugee program, tomorrow I’ll get into how this affects U.S. foreign policy.

Earlier this month the Department released a series of papers on refugee programs in the United States, breaking down refugee admissions programs from the various global regions. In addition the report included a fact sheet on the Refugee Reception and Placement Program. This sparse fact sheet is made up almost entirely of the following paragraphs:

Each refugee case approved for admission to the United States is sponsored by one of ten voluntary agencies participating in the Reception & Placement (R&P) program under a cooperative agreement with the Department of State. The sponsoring agency is responsible for placing the refugees included in a case with one of its affiliated offices in an appropriate location in the United States and for providing initial services, which include housing, essential furnishings, food, clothing, community orientation and referral to other social and employment services, for the refugees’ first 30-90 days in the U.S. The R&P program is a public-private partnership, which anticipates that voluntary agencies will contribute significant cash and/or in-kind resources to supplement U.S. Government per capita grants.

Although refugees receive public assistance when they first arrive, the U.S. Government emphasizes early economic self-sufficiency to speed their integration into American society. During the refugees’ initial transition period, programs funded by the Department of Health and Human Services/Office of Refugee Resettlement and administered by the states provide cash and medical assistance, employment, training and other support services. After 12 months of residency, refugees are required to return to DHS "for inspection and examination for admission to the United States as an immigrant…" After five years in the U.S., refugees may apply for citizenship.

Run by the small Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, a unit which receives very little press, America’s refugee program is operates almost entirely without fanfare or public attention. About the only time most Americans think of refugees in America, I’d wager, is if a rfugee commits a publicized crime. This, I think, is a shame- America’s willingness to take in refugees from around the globe demonstrates all that is best and brightest about our country.

I first really took notice of the program myself in 2001 when I read “The Long Road From Sudan to America” which opens with this memorable paragraph:

One evening late in January, a 21-year-old named Peter Dut led his two teenage brothers through the brightly lighted corridors of the Minneapolis airport, trying to mask his confusion. Two days before, they had encountered their first light switch and tried their first set of stairs. An aid worker in Nairobi had demonstrated the flush toilet to them -- also the seat belt, the shoelace, the fork. And now they found themselves alone in Minneapolis, three bone-thin African boys confronted by a swirling river of white faces and rolling suitcases, blinking television screens and telephones that rang, inexplicably, from the inside of people's pockets. Here they were, uncertain of even the rug beneath their feet, looking for this place called Gate C31.

Now, I am no stranger to culture shock, and have even had a twinge or two of it when returning to the U.S. after a long absence. While posted abroad for the first time I found that I could pick out an English language conversation from a very great distance, as I was in a place where very few people spoke English. I was out with friends in a crowded pub on the day I returned to the U.S. after being gone for quite some time and found myself unable to “block out” the myriad English conversations going on around me- it was an hour or so before I was able to do so. That was really weird. I can only imagine what a Sudanese teenager must feel. “The lost boys of Sudan” have in many ways become synonymous with refugees in the U.S., a movie has been made about them (which I have not seen), the BBC has followed up on them, and countless T.V. programs have run depicting their lives.

These young men, however, are a far cry from being all of the refugees in America. Cubans, Hmong, Iraqi, Kurdish, Iranians, Haitian, Salvadoran, Bosnian, the list goes on and on. You might ask why are they here, how do they get here and where do they come form? A very informative Q&A on refugees can be found here. A few of representative pieces:

Q: What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?
A: Immigrants leave their homes for economic opportunity, education and other reasons. Refugees flee their homes because of fear of persecution and require special protection because at the root of their exile is a serious human rights violation.


Q: How does the US decide which refugees to admit?
A: The U.S. State Department and U.S. Justice Department conduct background checks and interviews with each refugee before they are admitted. Refugees also are given medical tests to determine if they have any contagious diseases such as tuberculosis. They are tested again when they arrive in the U.S. to guard against fraudulent or false results.


Q: Who decides how many refugees can come into the US?
A: Each year, the President sets a ceiling for refugee admissions. He bases his on recommendations from world refugee relief organizations, including the United Nations, and in consultation with Congress as well as federal officials who oversee refugee services. Since 2002, the ceiling has been set at 70,000.


You might also ask, “Why should I care?” That is a more difficult question. These refugees, many without money or skills, often devoid of hope until they land in America, are settling in among us. They are learning about America in a way that almost no foreigner has in the last 50 years- arriving in the same condition as many of our forefathers. Bereft, but determined to make a better future. And we are ignoring them, by and large.


Why are we not doing our best by these unfortunates and prepping them to return home someday, educated in the ways of America, democracy and freedom? Who could better serve as a representative to the world about the promise of America? Where are the Muslim refugees of Bosnia in our fight agains Islamo-fascism, why are they not refuting the "great Satan" mythos? This is the planned theme for tomorrow- does our refugee program work not just for individual families, but for America (and should it) and to what end?

As always, I am looking forward to comments and questions.

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dé·marche 1) A course of action; a maneuver. 2) A diplomatic representation or protest 3) A statement or protest addressed by citizens to public authorities.

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