IN the recent debate about who is a political refugee and who is an economic migrant, very little is said about the slide of United States refugee policy into politics.
Immigration from the former Soviet Union illustrates the uses and limits of US refugee policy. A refugee, according to the Refugee Act of 1980 is an individual who has been persecuted or who has "well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." The act empowers the US to respond quickly and with flexibility when a need arises to provide refuge to those in imminent danger at home and have nowhere else to go.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now places 16 million to 17 million people in that category worldwide. For 1992 the US will fund the admission of about 122,000 refugees. Of these, 61,000 will be admitted as refugees from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Refugees enjoy some important advantages over regular immigrants, like a cash allotment and an interest-free loan for transportation to the US. The federal portion of the bill for refugee resettlement is $709.3 million dollars for fiscal year 1992. Focusing on the federal portion of resettlement costs ignores expenditures on social services required after the initial settlement period of eight months.
Most of the true cost of refugee absorption is borne outside refugee-specific budget items, at the federal, state, and local levels. The National Governors Association says state and local expenditures on refugee support are "conservatively" estimated at $620 million for the first year of refugee support alone.
According to an unpublished 1991 US Department of Health and Human Services study, about 44 percent of refugees from the commonwealth are receiving public cash assistance a year after arrival, well after federal refugee assistance has run out.
The actual welfare dependency rate is higher, since the study excluded all individuals 65 or over (1 1/3 percent of recent arrivals) and those receiving only non-cash assistance. Refugees are actively encouraged to use Medicaid and other programs like food stamps and public housing; those of retirement age receive SSI/Medicare.
According to the UNHCR, almost no one emigrating from the commonwealth today is a refugee. Nevertheless, the Lautenberg Amendment of 1989 was recently extended for two more years, defining entire groups in the commonwealth as subject to persecution and thus entitled to refugee status under US law. Accordingly, "once an individual asserts that he is a member of the covered class and asserts that he has been persecuted or has a fear of persecution, that individual shall be deemed a refugee." With a perfunc tory assertion of persecution, the applicant learns that dissimulation is as important for getting by in America as it was at home in the old USSR.
Eighty percent of the refugee quota goes to Jewish applicants. Most of the balance is awarded to evangelicals. Among these, it is reported, there has been a wave of dubious conversions. These two groups together are a minority of those who have applied to leave the commonwealth. Yet, as these things go, opportunity to emigrate to the US is virtually foreclosed to those outside the covered group.
BECAUSE of the great numbers with automatic eligibility, Russian refugees of today, besides belonging to "Lautenberg" categories, must have relatives in America - themselves recent beneficiaries of the resettlement program. Since citizenship is not required of the "anchor" relative, it is, more precisely, an accelerated version of that process, minus the requirement that the visa-holder be an individual unlikely to become a public charge.
We don't know how many of the 300,000 we have accepted since 1975 have been here long enough to be citizens and thus could serve as "anchor" relatives for normal immigration. This year less than 3,000 will be admitted as immigrants from the commonwealth. Refugee status is the designation of choice for those immigrating to America and for those in America who would otherwise have to help with the costs.
Processing immigrants as refugees sets the stage for special-interest group infighting for privileged admission status and transfers the costs of resettlement from the sponsor and the immigrant to the taxpayer. It weakens the necessary link to an established community and the need for integration into the culture, language and economy.
While the US has defined broad legal categories for refugee admission, it has, paradoxically, surrendered all control over the selection of individuals who enter the US; that decision is the prerogative of the would-be immigrant and can be made with little sacrifice or regard for economic conditions in the host country.
Our refugee policy has outlived its historical mission; and discussion about its future must be premised on the privatization of immigration for the former Soviet Union. Today, immigration from the commonwealth is politicized in the extreme. Indeed, only in a place like the old Soviet Union would it come as no surprise that a policy which began with a humanitarian concern has ended so thoroughly in politics.