President Clinton seems to enjoy his reputation as a humanitarian. While actively pursuing a high-profile handshake altruism, however, Mr. Clinton has neglected humanitarianism in his own backyard by decreasing the number of refugees given shelter by the United States to the lowest figure in a decade.
Recently, the president set the number of refugees admitted to the US at 78,000 for 1999, down from 83,000 in 1998. Overall refugee admissions to the US have plummeted from a Bush-administration high of 142,000 in 1992 to 70,000 in 1997 - a 58 percent drop in refugee admissions during the Clinton presidency. These are refugees who've already proven that, if they return to their home countries, they will be persecuted or killed because of their religion, race, national origin, membership in a social group, or political opinion. Yet, not once on Clinton's watch has the overall ceiling for refugee admissions been met.
Clinton deserves praise for raising the previously paltry number of refugees allowed to enter the US from Africa. However, this will be an empty gesture until he decides to improve the Byzantine way in which refugees are processed in Africa.
Simultaneously, the administration reduced by 3,000 the number of European and former Soviet refugees admitted to the US. This comes at a time when 270,000 persons have fled ethnic violence in Kosovo, and several former Soviet republics teeter on the brink of civil war. If the situation is bad enough for Clinton to be considering air strikes in Kosovo, now is not the time to shut the door on refugees.
An idea seems to have taken root at the State Department that since the cold war's end, there are no more refugees. However, human misery and fear are felt equally, whether the oppressors are communists, fascists, or fundamentalists.
The administration reduced the number of refugees allowed to enter the US from East Asia by 5,000. However, last year saw 20,000 Burmese and 70,000 Cambodians fleeing to Thailand. Many of these people will never be able to return to their homelands because they subscribed to American ideals of democracy, free speech, and free press to change their repressive governments.
As large refugee caseloads, such as the Vietnamese, have dwindled, the administration has seen no reason to correspondingly increase admissions to other groups of persecuted peoples.
The administration would do well to make a new foreign policy statement by offering the sanctuary to the enemies of our enemies. It would speak volumes to those who denounce the US and decry our policies if we welcomed deserving groups such as pro-democracy Burmese, religiously-persecuted Bahais from Iran, anti-Saddam Hussein Iraqis in Turkey and Syria, and Algerian journalists.
Other nations look to the US to lead on human rights. And as America was founded by those fleeing oppression, it has a moral commitment to continue in that tradition. No one suggests the US bear all the burden. Some say the US should simply pay to help other countries process refugees. It certainly should do that, too. But the US government's contribution to refugee aid worldwide is about $1.32 per capita - well behind Norway ($12.46), and even Liechtenstein ($1.33).
Clinton has overseen one of the sharpest reductions in America's acceptance of refugees in our history. Earlier this year, the president said, "I believe immigrants are good for America.They are reminding all of us what it truly means to be an American." Yet Clinton's recently disbanded immigration reform commission struck a tone far from John Kennedy's melting pot populism.
America is a nation of character that should abide by its moral commitment to help those fleeing oppression. If Clinton is truly a humanitarian, he will rethink US refugee admission policy.
* Bronwyn Lance is a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public policy organization in Arlington, Va.