Cranking bureaucratic wheels to reunite a refugee family. Documents are a crucial link in visa process

Sowatha Kong clicks in the videocassette made by relief workers in Thailand and glimpses the mother she has not seen since 1975. The elderly woman on the screen smiles broadly after being told that the tape will be shown to her daughter in America and, in the steady staccato of the Khmer tongue, asks how long it will be before they can see each other.

It is a poignant reminder of the stake Mrs. Kong has in the plight of refugees in Indochina. Like thousands of other Southeast Asians who have settled in the United States, the young Cambodian lost track of many of her relatives.

Some 260,000 people, most of them Cambodians, still live in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Many have no relatives in Western countries or, if they do, are unable to contact them to let them know they are alive. Others, like Sowatha's mother, simply wait for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to turn.

The US has shifted in the last year to process more Indochinese as immigrants rather than as refugees. State Department officials point to a number of factors that contributed to the change, particularly the high number of Indochinese who hold American citizenship.

``We need to balance our efforts,'' says Ambassador At Large Jonathan Moore, the US coordinator for refugee affairs. ``This means gradually moving from a refugee system toward immigration whenever possible.'' Close to 800,000 Indochinese have come to the US as refugees since 1975. By the end of 1986, some 46,000 had become citizens, according to the State Department.

Once refugees become citizens, they can apply to bring their immediate relatives into the country as immigrants. This saves the government money that could go for resettlement programs, because the US-based relatives are responsible for the newcomers, assuring them a home and financial support.

But critics say the policy is flawed. Since last year, the US Embassy in Thailand has interviewed 179 Cambodians seeking immigrant visas, of which 148 were approved. Only 28 have left Thailand for the US. Some relief workers contend that the US is being unduly strict in reviewing applications for both refugees and immigrants, often rejecting applicants over technicalities or asking for documents that are impossible to get.

Some of the problems with the system can be seen in the story of the Kong family. Sowatha and her husband came to the US as refugees in 1981 and became citizens last November. They have been trying to get Sowatha's mother and brother out of Thailand since 1983. ``We were working on getting them here as refugees,'' Sowatha says. ``Then, in the middle of everything, we had to change [our approach].''

After gaining citizenship, the Kongs filed applications to bring their relatives to the US as immigrants. The process turned into an avalanche of red tape, however.

The problem is documents. Many Indochinese refugees left behind basic records, such as birth certificates and high school diplomas. Sowatha began reconstructing her family records once she made it into a refugee camp. She tracked down a Cambodian who attended her wedding; he gave her an affidavit that she now uses as proof.

Last fall, she applied for visas for her relatives. But officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied the request for her mother, saying the documents were incomplete, while approving her brother, for whom identical materials had been submitted. Among other things, the INS wants to see her mother's birth certificate.

Sowatha has not seen her mother or brother for more than a decade. In late 1975, Cambodia's then-victorious Khmer Rouge leaders rousted people from their homes and sent them to labor in the countryside. ``We'd walk for days, and when we finally thought we'd met someone in authority, they'd just tell us to keep on going,'' says Sowatha, who was separated from her husband, parents, and other relatives. She survived for four years by using her skills as a nurse.

She was reunited with her husband, and together they bribed and bluffed their way to the border of Thailand and into the Khao I Dang refugee camp. The camp, which is in the process of being closed, has been the only place where Cambodians could gain internationally recognized refugee status and become eligible for resettlement abroad. People in border camps are considered ``displaced'' and could be forced to return to Cambodia.

In 1982, a letter from Sowatha's mother was smuggled out of Cambodia. Sowatha began writing her mother, urging her and her brother to escape. The Kongs paid $4,000 to get them smuggled into Khao I Dang, which was no longer accepting arrivals. As ``illegals'' they were not eligible for food or medicine, so they moved back to a border camp.

Today Sowatha carries around an armload of INS documents. She figures she spends several hours a day working on the forms and letters needed to press her case. Despite delays and complications, she remains optimistic. Recalling her own struggle to escape, she says her experience shows it can be done.

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