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.”
These are not the stories drafters of international law had in mind when they wrote the Refugee Convention in 1951 in response to the crisis of World War II. But the horror of having turned away those fleeing Nazi extermination—most notoriously, though hardly uniquely, when the U.S. refused the USS St. Louis a port in 1939 and sent 900 Jews to certain death—stirred a universal commitment to providing safe haven for the persecuted. Optimistically, perhaps, officials expected the convention to become obsolete within a few years; it applied only to victims of the Second World War. A sobering 1967 protocol updated the convention and expanded its scope. The U.S. signed on in 1968.
Nonetheless, until 1980, when Congress passed the landmark Refugee Act, the U.S. had no formal resettlement policy. America took in World War II refugees on an ad hoc basis through the initiative of private, usually religious, organizations. More active from the late 1950s through the 1970s, the federal government gave almost exclusive preference to those fleeing Communist countries, still on a case-by-case basis—admitting Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese, and more Cubans.
With the end of the Cold War in the ’80s, however, refugee allocations stopped being, at least so baldly, foreign policy by other means. Nowadays, says Lavinia Limón, head of the nonprofit Immigration and Refugee Services of America (IRSA), selection is often a function of “which group has the best lobbying on their behalf or where CNN has just been.”
If there’s little strategic planning in U.S. resettlement policy, there is a formidable infrastructure—and bureaucracy: an Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services as well as a Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration within the State Department. Along with the INS, state-level refugee coordinator offices, and some 10 national voluntary agencies, these organizations have over the last 20 years helped to bring in more than 2 million people, and provided such assistance as job training, housing, and English classes.
The U.S. designates three categories of eligible refugees: those recommended by the UNHCR (or a local U.S. embassy), those with close relatives already settled in the U.S., and those belonging to an ethnic or religious group specified by the president as of special concern to the U.S.—Soviet Jews, for instance, or, more recently, religious minorities from Iran and the “Lost Boys” of Sudan (thousands of young cattle tenders who were left in the wilderness of southern Sudan with only each other to rely on after soldiers burned their villages in the late 1980s).
Advocates are pressing for the government to designate other special groups—including “at-risk women,” vulnerable in some camps because they lack the protection of a father or husband—and to expedite their processing for arrival this year. At the very least, they want numbers short of 70,000 to be rolled over to next year. Most of all, says IRSA’s Limón, “We need government to do what it’s not best known for: Stretch their imaginations. Why not open up Fort Dix and get people in here, like we did for the Kosovars? Why just insist that the pace can’t be picked up under the current constructs? Change the constructs!”
Looking at the global refugee crisis more widely, many in the “refugee community”—as advocates, aid workers, attorneys, and policy wonks have come to be known—are trying to push for broad new paradigms even as they do what they can to offer some concrete assistance to genuinely suffering people under the existing rules. “The system is deeply flawed,” Arthur Helton explains. “It’s built on the assumption that after a crisis abates, it will never be used again, so it never gets ready to do things in a proactive way.” It’s not enough to “warehouse people” or to “administer misery,” he argues. What is more, adds Limón, military actions and foreign policy decisions—and economic globalization, one may well add—often produce vast migrations, and those effects ought to be taken into account. How could the U.S. not have anticipated, for example, that Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s “ethnic cleansing” and NATO’s bombing of Kosovo would send hordes of civilians running toward safety in Macedonia?
Of course, plucking, say, 3000 refugees out of a camp of 50,000 makes a tremendous difference to those 3000, but it doesn’t solve the crisis. Says one refugee worker in southern Africa, “Providing for some resettlement and funding UNHCR so they can buy food and blankets for the camps is the only way the U.S. is involved in addressing the deprivations of this continent.” It’s not only a humanitarian cop-out, critics say, it is politically shortsighted.
“For 20 years we ignored 3 to 4 million Afghan refugees,” notes Limón. “Things got so destabilized that it became easy for bin Laden and his buddies to go in and take advantage. If you don’t give people a place to put down roots and live a life, it eventually comes back to bite you.”
At the heart of the trouble with the half-century-old model for assisting refugees is the very definition of the term. The UN regards only those who have fled their countries as refugees, for example, though today, tens of millions of people are displaced and living in danger and squalor within the borders of their home nations. What is more, those “merely” seeking a better life—economic migrants—are not regarded as requiring assistance at all, even though lack of work opportunities or near starvation can amount, arguably, to a form of persecution.
When it comes to qualifying for the U.S. resettlement program, it’s not enough to show that one has fled famine, drought, war, or general violence. Applicants must demonstrate that the persecution they’ve suffered is individual, that is, specifically directed at them, as the law has it, “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
So Erin Corcoran would listen carefully to the horror stories people recounted to her in Zambia and translate them into legalistic narratives that would pass muster with the INS. “More often than not, I could write the stories in a way that emphasized the individual persecution claims,” she explains. Indeed, the UNHCR recruited her precisely because, as an attorney typically battling the INS stateside on behalf of would-be immigrants in deportation proceedings, she knew just what agency officials were looking for.
Day after day, Corcoran drew out the stories and filled out the forms. “You choose the relevant facts that work and put the right things in the right boxes,” she says. “That’s what lawyers do: manipulate the facts around the legally constructed definitions.” It was a complicated role, she says. “I went very idealistic and ended up pretty cynical. There was no cognizable reason that some people got to see me and others didn’t. It seemed arbitrary and I hated playing God. I looked at camps full of 30,000 people and knew that I wasn’t even making a dent.”
On reflection, though, Corcoran has concluded that her time in Zambia was well spent. “It’s true that not everyone gets a fair shake, and I can’t fix that,” she says. “But it is better to save one than none.” She is planning to do another stint this summer—in Senegal, Ghana, or Cyprus.
This is the fourth of an ongoing series investigating the INS.
“Haiti’s Unauthorized Refugees Held in Miami” by Alisa Solomon
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 7, 2002