States complain about cost of refugee resettlement; Federal agency will now supply assistance only for first 18 months

The Reagan administration's efforts to persuade state and local governments to take over the costs of human services have spilled over into the nation's refugee resettlement program.

On April 1 the federal government ended cash assistance to childless refugees who have been in the United States for more than 18 months, and transferred them to existing county welfare programs. The US Office of Refugee Resettlement says it was being criticized for aiding refugees at a time when services for disadvantaged Americans are being cut.

But critics charge that the US government is shirking its mandate for refugee resettlement legislated by Congress in the Refugee Act of 1980. And states that have large refugee populations, like California, Texas, and Florida, accuse Washington of dumping its refugee responsibility onto the states and counties.

Although the US government says that it will reimburse counties for providing refugees with up to 18 months of general assistance, county officials are skeptical that there are sufficient funds to do so. Moreover, many states and counties are already burdened with large welfare costs.

The US policy change has spurred several lawsuits by refugee rights groups around the country. ''We're being sued by everyone . . . on a number of thorny issues involving state, federal, and county governments,'' says Dan Baker, a program analyst in the Office of Refugee Resettlement in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, a major lawsuit was filed on behalf of Indochinese refugees and Cuban, Haitian, and Salvadoran immigrants against the federal government for treating these groups inequitably under the law.

Refugees in California and Washington State have won temporary injunctions against the policy shift because the US government violated its own due process rules when it gave the states and counties less than 30 days' notice prior to enacting it.

Federal officials acknowledge that the refugee program has been hard hit by the fiscal 1982 budget cuts that trimmed nearly 30 percent from the previous year's funding level. Oliver Cromwell, an official in the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, says that the administration hopes that private charities will furnish ''stopgap measures'' to help refugees who are taken off public assistance.

State and local officials, however, contend that from the outset the US government underestimated the needs of refugees, who often come to this country impoverished and lacking vocational skills and a knowledge of English. They argue that refugees therefore require short-term public assistance in order to adjust to American society. Such programs were provided for in the Refugee Act of 1980 and funded by foreign-aid money, but changing political opinion and a sagging economy have caused the refugee program to lose favor with politicians and their constituents.

Jo Frederick, head of the California Office of Refugee Services, agrees. ''There is not the desire to ask for funding for this program,'' she says, ''just as there is not the desire to fund other social services at this time.''

''Refugees come here under the auspices of the federal government and are literally dumped on the state, and we're left to cope with the problems,'' says state Sen. John Garamendi, a Democratic candidate for governor.

As state Senate majority leader, Mr. Garamendi co-wrote a controversial bill passed by the California Legislature last June that set priorities for state spending of federal refugee money. It stopped funding mental health counseling, orientation programs, and other support services in favor of employment-related services. The aim was to move refugees quickly into the job market, reducing refugee service costs for the state as the federal government withdraws.

Assemblyman Art Agnos of San Francisco says California has enough fiscal problems without having to pick up the burden of paying for what it views as a federal program. ''It's the federal government's responsibility to fund refugee programs,'' Mr. Agnos says, a moral obligation after US involvement in the Vietnam war.

With or without federal help, California, Texas, Florida, and other states with large refugee populations inevitably wind up absorbing the costs of the impact on housing, public school systems, health clinics, and police forces. ''You don't submit a bill to the federal government for that and have it paid for by the federal refugee program,'' Ms. Frederick says.

Meanwhile, Congress began hearings in late April on whether to renew the Refugee Act which expires later this year. Congressional opponents of the refugee program have introduced several bills that would further reduce refugee admissions and resettlement programs.

State and local governments therefore may be fighting a losing battle to keep from shouldering the burden of resettlement. ''The bottom line is that when the federal government withdraws its support, the people are here and they still have needs,'' Frederick says.

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