The Golden Ticket

Will Our Refugee Program Survive 9-11 and the Breakup of the INS?

Dozens of desperate people greeted Erin Corcoran as she made her way to work each morning in Lusaka, Zambia, last spring, where she spent two months interviewing refugees seeking to be taken in by the United States. Every day, as a UN van transported her to the squat stone building where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) keeps offices, Corcoran had to repress the dread rising in her stomach as she gazed out at the long line of supplicants who had fled to Zambia from Angola, Congo, and Somalia. Because each case took at least eight hours to prepare, Corcoran knew that most of those needy people would never even get past the door for an interview, much less be granted what refugee workers call, with no trace of irony, "the golden ticket"—a chance to start a new life in America, not only legally but with government aid.

At 28, with a freshly minted law degree, a month on the job as a pro bono immigration attorney in New York, and enormous hope that she could help make a difference in the lives of at least a handful of the world's 14 million refugees, Corcoran was taking on a role in the least known and least controversial of America's immigration programs: a cumbersome but dogged system for resettling each year tens of thousands of the masses yearning to breathe free.

Her job, under contract with UNHCR, was to screen applicants and prepare the paperwork showing, as official policy puts it, that they were unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality because of a "well-founded fear of persecution." America's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) would review the materials and conduct follow-up interviews later to determine who would be granted one of the precious slots the U.S. sets aside for refugees each year.

The ideal solution for refugees is, of course, to go home after the threats have subsided, or, failing that, to be absorbed fully into the country they have fled to. When those options fail—as they do more and more—resettlement in a third country is the best choice. Advocates argue that the U.S.'s declining resettlement numbers—70,000 for the current year—are far too low to address the colossal humanitarian crises erupting around the world. Yet nobody discounts the significance of every life that is saved.

The post-9-11 scramble to fortify U.S. borders knocked the resettlement process way off course. Nobody has ever accused the program of posing a security threat—the worst anyone can say is that it does too little too slowly—but refugee admissions was the only immigration program in the country to be completely suspended after the World Trade Center attacks. While foreign students, technical workers, and tourists continued to stream into America, some 22,000 people running from persecution, who had already been cleared for resettlement, were left stranded. Many had sold their belongings, abandoned jobs and abodes, and even acquired airplane tickets (for which they may have had to take out loans). Others never made it that far. The stack of some 50 applications Corcoran painstakingly prepared a year ago was left untouched. The INS had planned to send officials for follow-up interviews in September, but called off the mission after the 11th, concerned about the safety of government personnel.

Now the INS machinery is beginning to grind again. In February, interviews resumed in such places as Moscow, Vienna, and Vietnam, and in recent weeks officials have taken up posts in major cities in Africa, and might even make a "circuit tour" that includes Lusaka, where they can blow the dust off Corcoran's files. About half of the 22,000 stranded in September have trickled into the U.S. over the last couple of months, but new security measures have brought further delays for others. Never mind that "refugees have always gone through the most extensive check of any newcomers, and now officials have added as thorough a scrubbing as anyone can imagine," notes Leonard Glickman, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "If you're a terrorist trying to come here to do harm, the refugee program would be the least efficient way for you to try."

Refugee advocates and government sources agree that there is no way the U.S. will come close to this year's target number of 70,000 resettlements without some special emergency effort, and so far, none is in the offing. Now, with the fate of the INS itself in doubt—Congress voted 405-9 last month to abolish the beleaguered agency—funding for the INS's part in the process may be up for grabs. The additional scrutiny in the name of security makes the program more expensive and that makes refugee resettlement vulnerable, according to scholar Arthur Helton, author of The Price of Indifference: Refugees & Humanitarian Action in the New Century. He predicts "a slowly eroding commitment" on Congress's part. Refugees—"history's losers" as one UNHCR official describes them—have become 9-11's other victims.

Among the applicants Corcoran put forward during her stint in Africa were a Somali woman with razor scars on her face and a chunk of her nose missing, the result of injuries she suffered as an ethnic minority in the refugee camp; a young woman who was held captive as a Zambian man's sex slave and then kicked out; six Congolese siblings, ages five to 17, who had made their way to Zambia after their father had been kidnapped. And woman after woman who had been raped. "It was a fact of life," Corcoran recalls, "so common that women didn't usually think of being raped as relevant to their claim until I asked about it."

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