UNITED STATES refugee selection has always been driven by foreign affairs, cold-war politics in particular. But that is not as it should be.
The guiding mission of our refugee resettlement program should be to promote human rights and to provide humanitarian relief. To that end, Congress should enact general selection standards and create an independent Refugee Board to implement them.
To be a refugee under either American or international law, one must have ''a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.'' An estimated 20 million individuals worldwide meet that definition.
Some of these refugees hope that conditions in their countries of origin will improve eventually and that they will be able to return home. Others will be integrated into the countries in which they are now temporarily housed. But many - mostly women and children - can hope only for resettlement in third countries like the US.
Who most needs US protection?
The US cannot absorb all such refugees. There are simply too many. But we can at least make sure that those refugees we do admit are the ones who need our help the most - the ones for whom persecution is the most likely, the most imminent, and the most severe.
Under US law, the president announces annual limits on the total number of overseas refugee admissions and breaks down those limits by region or country. In the past few years, these annual caps have steadily dropped. For the current fiscal year, the ceiling is 90,000. Of that number, approximately 70,000 will be reserved for refugees from the former Soviet Union and Indochina. Almost nothing is left over for Bosnians, Rwandans, and others.
Since World War II, well over 90 percent of all refugees admitted to the US have been those fleeing communist governments. Presidents have turned a deaf ear to virtually all other refugees. Cold-war politics and their modern spillover effects, rather than human rights or humanitarianism, have driven US refugee policy.
Some might argue that, since we can take in only a fraction of the world's refugees anyway, we might as well serve US foreign policy in the process. The problem with such reasoning is that refugees are not fungible. The needs of some groups are more urgent than the needs of others.
Allowing foreign policy to dictate our refugee selection prevents us from taking those differentials into account. In any event, whatever argument might have been possible for turning away refugees from non-communist governments in the past, surely the end of the cold war makes those arguments anachronistic today. We must honor existing commitments, but our future refugee policy should put a premium on human rights and humanitarian relief of suffering. That will not happen as long as presidents have carte blanche to make these decisions.
In theory, Congress could set the annual limits itself. Elected by the people, Congress would normally be the logical body to make such important policy decisions. But unfortunately, modern refugee flows are often sudden and unpredictable. Speed and flexibility are vital. Congress, by nature slow and deliberative, is not suited to that mission.
Let appointed experts set policy
An independent Refugee Board, modeled on other independent federal agencies and insulated from partisan pressures, is the answer. Along with establishing this board, Congress should enact legislation declaring that human rights and humanitarianism are the linchpins of US refugee policy and specifying broad categories of refugees who should receive priority.
The board's members would continuously monitor world refugee flows, keep Congress and the executive apprised of key developments, and periodically determine the total number and regional breakdown of refugees to be admitted, applying the criteria prescribed by Congress.
The members of the Refugee Board should be nominated by the president for fixed terms and confirmed by the Senate. They should be a diverse group of professionals with distinction and expertise in international law, refugee movements, and human rights.
An independent board would combine the deliberative qualities of Congress, the speed and flexibility of the executive branch, and the impartiality and insulation of the judiciary. Only such a board could focus its efforts on humanitarian concerns.
US refugee policy can be as compassionate as we wish it to be. But if we wish it to be more compassionate than it now is, the decisionmaking structure will require radical alterations.