A STATE Department panel chaired by former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray has urged resettlement of many of the 154,000 refugees now in Southeast Asian camps. Mr. Ray said that, although the United States has already welcomed 800,000 Asian refugees since 1975, we should take the lead in solving the problem. The panel also recommended that we mount a concerted campaign to permit reeducation-camp inmates in Vietnam to come here. That's a noble goal. But is it attainable, and what is the cost? More than a decade after the fall of South Vietnam, Indochinese refugees continue to arrive at Southeast Asian camps every day. Can we be blamed for being skeptical about our ability to solve the problem?
We learned that we cannot be the world's police officer. And now we are learning a painful new lesson in Southeast Asia -- that we cannot be the world's haven for all who live under oppression.
The proliferation of refugees is not unique to Indochina. It is a worldwide phenomenon. W. R. Smyser, the United Nations' deputy high commissioner for refugees, wrote that the second half of the 20th century has witnessed an unprecedented explosion in the number and impact of refugees. Describing the global refugee situation as ``immense, tenacious, and omnipresent,'' he said that there are now more than 10 million refugees, found on every continent and in virtually every nation. They exist in spite of recent hurculean efforts that have resettled more than 2.5 million third-world refugees in Western countries.
UN Deputy Commissioner Smyser explained that in addition to those in Southeast Asian camps, there are more than 4 million in Southwest Asia, 2.5 million in Central and East Africa, 2 million in the Middle East, and 300,000 in Central America. A steady stream continues to flee Soviet-bloc countries. Significant groups have found temporary asylum in dozens of other lands.
What we're seeing is not temporary, but a long-term reality. In Mr. Smyser's words, it's ``a never-ending story.'' The global problem is not going to disappear. On the contrary, inevitable new hot spots such as Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa will test the limits of our compassion if they produce refugee floods.
America already accepts more refugees for resettlement than the rest of the world combined. Can we continue on this course? We are not only trying to absorb large new infusions of refugees, but are also taking in significantly increased numbers of immigrants and illegal aliens. Isn't this analogous to Congress, in the years before the Gramm-Rudman antideficit law, spending billions on a cornucopia of well-intentioned programs with no restraining mechanism? At some point, our zeal to share what we have can cause us to lose what we have.
We should not kid ourselves about the cost of resettling refugees from very different cultures, who typically do not speak English or possess marketable job skills. Initial resettlement is a multibillon-dollar business. A University of Michigan study found that virtually all Southeast Asian refugees begin their life in America on welfare. The US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which monitors refugees in their first three years in this country, says that 52.4 percent of those refugees receive cash public assistance.
A California study found that the majority of Indochinese refugees here five years or longer were still dependent on public support. Those who compare these new refugees to our ancestors are ignoring the facts. It's not the same, and it's not xenophobic or callous for everyday Americans to worry about the implications.
Those of us in political life are excruciatingly aware of budget cutbacks necessary under Gramm-Rudman as we struggle to smite the runaway federal deficit. We're going to have to make do with much less. There have to be trade-offs. Money we spend on new refugees will not go to relieve hardships for our own poor and unemployed, and for refugees already here. One-third of the children in America do not receive adequate dental care. What priority should that have?
We need to promote rational, sustainable approaches to the refugee dilemma. Voluntary repatriation should be the primary goal. We should enlist other nations' support for doing what is necessary to allow this goal to be reached. To encourage broad support, our appeal should be humanitarian, apolitical, and devoid of polemics. The flight of Cubans and Indochinese should not be welcomed as evidence of the bankruptcy of Marxism. The festering of Palestinian refugees in camps profoundly affects many nations as it spawns terrorism. These are tragedies for all concerned. Our emphasis should not be on extracting refugees, but in working out lasting regional solutions.
The United States should continue to provide a haven for some refugees. But the number we accept should be included in an annual ceiling set by Congress which includes all entrants-immigrants, refugees, and persons granted asylum. We must decide what flow of newcomers we can afford, and can assimilate into our culture. Then, the US administration would be required to operate within this ceiling.
If the press of world events compels us to take more refugees in a given year, then let's have a mechanism that ensures we make the hard choice of correspondingly reducing the number of immigrants for that year.
Our emphasis should be on those who are fleeing the most acute persecution. Our policy must not serve as a substitute for family reunification under our normal immigrant process. Refugees must be limited to true political refugees. There are 1.7 million people waiting their turn to immigrate. Many resent refugees going to the head of the line.
The refuge we provide should be temporary, until conditions become tolerable back home. If the human rights situation continues to improve in Haiti, for example, I see no reason why we should not require the Haitians to whom we gave asylum during the Duvalier regime to return home and make room for refugees from other countries.
Like all countries, we have limits. We can't be the world's welfare agency. We cannot eliminate third-world poverty and oppression by opening our door to all who would like to escape. Switzerland and Norway have reputations of being among the most humanitarian nations in the world, but they know that they cannot accept hundreds of thousands of refugees without destroying their way of life and their ability to provide an acceptable safety net for their own employed and poor.
Let's admit that we also need to make hard choices. We need to do what we can to alleviate suffering in other countries, but we must realize the impact that will have on our own underprivileged and the legacy we're leaving our children.
Richard D. Lamm is governor of Colorado.