They have a dream: a new home, a new life . . . in the United States. From the jungles of Southeast Asia to the bare mountains around Afghanistan, from the African plains to the bright islands of the Caribbean, the homeless and evicted in their hundreds of thousands tend to look toward North America for ultimate refuge. The United States is their Shangri-La.
But the inrush of often-destitute home seekers -- some, like the Indo-Chinese , in a reasonably ordered, processed flow, and others, like the Cubans and Haitians, in a chaotic, boat-borne flood -- is beginning to stir anxious second thoughts among Americans.
True, many Americans have responded to refugee needs with astonishing generosity and enthusiasm, especially volunteer workers and agencies. Some 650, 000 refugees from Southeast Asia, Africa, East Europe, and elsewhere have been successfully resettled in the US over the past five years. In 1980 alone, total US assistance for refugees around the world has exceeded $1 billion.
And while several European countries have begun closing the door on Southeast Asian refugees because of "oversaturation," Washington has agreed to maintain its monthly quota of 14,000.
But there is a growing realization that:
* Giving funds and offering new homes to refugees is not enough; that the political reasons behind today's refugee tide need to be tackled more directly.
"There is a general attitude here that refugees are a humanitarian and not a political issue," say Robert Henderson and Georges Fauriol of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "As a result, the United States lacks a refugee policy with a direction."
* Refugee problems are no longer limited and intermittent occurrences. Instead, "They have become a chronic feature of our times," comments the US coordinator for refugee affairs, Victor Palmieri.
* The way in which the world focuses on refugee crises is often sporadic and uneven. The Cambodians and the Vietnamese "boat people" managed to rivet international attention while the masses of homeless around Ethiopia have received comparatively little publicity.
* The US response can also be haphazard, arbitrary, and discriminatory. The most recent example is the virtually automatic acceptance of the Cuban "boat people" as political refugees while the Haitian "boat people" have been considered by the US authorities to be economic refugees and therefore less entitled to resettlement here.
Last spring, in a significant step toward handling some of the problems, Congress and President Carter approved the Refugee Act of 1980 -- the first general refugee legislation adopted since World War II.
The measure abolished the refugee admission ceiling of 17,400 per year, a ceiling often surpassed. Now, for admissions up to 50,000, the President must consult with Congress on the refugees' origins and background; above 50,000 the President must consult with Congress on the specific number of refugees to be admitted. The President has the final word.
Critics nonetheless contend that the continued use of a parole authority, which remains in the hands of the attorney general, will only perpetuate discriminatory selection of ethnic groups and types of people admitted to the United States.
Another change was the definition of a refugee. The new act repealed the cold war definition which gave strong preference to refugees from communist countries and adopted one used by the United Nations. Basically, the act defines a refugee as a person from any part of the world who is unwilling to return to his home country because of a "well-founded fear of persecution."
But human-rights sources point out that new US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Instructions on asylum procedures could still leave room for discrimination. One provision, for instance, allows "immediate action cases" -- such as defecting diplomats, sportsmen, and artists from the Soviet Union and 14 other communist-bloc nations facing a "serious threat of forcible repatriation" -- to seek political asylum.
Critics say this in effect perpetuates the special treatment given asylum seekers from communist countries.
The new measure is being severely tested by the massive influx of Cubans last April and the upsurge in the number of Haitian "boat people" landing on Florida shores since 1972. The act, which went into effect last spring, did not foresee the massive Cuban boatlift and has no provision for such arrivals. As a result, the most recent arrivals have been granted temporary status.
Many government and relief officials assume the Cubans will be assimilated as before. But Haitian community leaders remain concerned. There has been no official move to recognize the estimated 30,000 Haitians in Florida as full-fledged political refugees, despite contentions that they more than meet the INS's admission requirements.
Human-rights advocates contend that arbitrary arrests, abductions, prolonged detentions, mistreatment of prisoners, and harassment are all common under the Haitian regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier.
"Politics and everyday life in Haiti cannot be separated," says Patrick Lemoine, a former political prisoner who now lives in New York. "A man can casually say that he is hungry, and that can be misconstrued to mean that he is criticizing governmental mismanagement of funds, therefore leading to his arrest."
"If the US were to apply the same strict criteria it has been using against the Haitians to the Vietnamese or the Soviet Jews," adds another source, "then we would have to turn back perhaps up to 80 percent of them."
Observers say the Haitian dilemma is not the only product of "irrational" US policy. Analysts say the US has tended to drag its feet when dealing with the victims of right-wing dictatorships in Latin America. Only 2,500 of the more than 230,000 refugees resettled in the US in fiscal 1980 came from Latin America and Africa.
While not denying the need to deal with refugees from communist countries, human-rights advocates stress the need for more discussion of problems in other parts of the world. "Political refugees in Latin America often have more cause to be concerned about physical safety than [people] elsewhere," says an Amnesty International official in London.
Yet Latin American asylum seekers are either refused entry because of communist affiliations or have to wait up to a year for a visa. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Latin Americans, not including Cubans, have sought refuge either in neighboring South and Central American countries or Europe. Several thousand live in the United States and Canada.
In recent months thousands of refugees have been able to return to Nicaragua, Brazil, and Chile because of improved conditions. But repression and strife in other areas could soon bring another surge, relief sources warn.
The conflict between the military-civilian junta and left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador already has cost the country more than 6,000 lives this year. Thousands have fled to Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. In Bolivia hundreds of youths, businessmen, and politicians have slipped into exile to avoid the harsh rule of the military dictatorship that took power last July.
Grim political conditions in Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina continue to spawn new refugees and dim the prospects of return for the tens of thousands who have been living in exile since the early 1970s. Even in Chile, which had permitted numerous refugees to return, rightist terrorist groups have increased their attacks against antiregime journalists, students, and Roman Catholic Church leaders. Many have been forced back into exile.