U.S.-bound refugees forced to wait, hope

Post-Sept. 11 security slows admissions

February 12, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

For two years, Angeline Teah has been waiting for eight of her children and two of her grandchildren to become part of her new life in America.

Teah, a refugee from Liberia and a nursing assistant in Northwest Baltimore, learned last year that U.S. immigration authorities had given approval for them to enter. Ranging in age from 7 months to 27 years, they were eager to leave refugee housing in the Ivory Coast, where the younger children cannot attend school.

Then came Sept. 11.

Now Teah's family is among a backlog of thousands of refugees whose dreams of coming to this country are on hold.

President Bush's adminstration would not allow any new arrivals for two months after the terrorist attacks. In November, however, he announced that as many as 70,000 refugees would be admitted by the fall.

But while U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar said his department will try to approve that number, State Department officials - who identify and screen refugees for the INS to interview - have been pessimistic. They have told resettlement groups they expect the number to be lower because they must make sure applicants have no terrorist ties.

Aid groups say that refugees, who are fleeing persecution in their countries, should not be treated as terrorists.

Only about 800 refugees entered the country during the last three months of 2001 - compared with about 14,000 over the same period in 2000. The backlog includes about 22,000 people who, like Teah's family members, already had been approved for admission by the INS.

"I thank them for allowing us even to come," said Teah, 51. "But at the same time, I would like very, very much for them to allow our children to come.

The number of refugees entering Maryland in October, November and December of 2001 dropped 90 percent compared with the same period a year before - from 363 to 32. At Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which works to place refugees around the country, the effects have been felt. A third of the staff at the organization's 27 affiliates have been laid off. Many themselves had come to America as refugees.

"If the U.S. is seen as reducing its commitment to resettlement, other countries will follow suit," said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., LIRS president. "The whole system of refugee resettlement in the U.S. is in danger."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, has scheduled a hearing today on the refugee backlog.

State Department officials say that keeping Americans safe, by applying tighter immigrant screening, has to take precedence over increasing admission numbers.

Even before Sept. 11, refugee admissions to this country had been waning, from about 130,000 in 1992 to 71,000 in 2001. In a report to Congress less than two weeks before the attacks, State Department officials proposed making 2002 a rebuilding year for the program, limiting admissions to 70,000.

"Deteriorating security conditions in refugee camps, the inadequacy of medical facilities required to conduct thorough medical screenings, as well as an alarming increase in fraud and corruption are but some of the issues confronting the program," the report said.

In Maryland, the combination of circumstances worries those who place refugees and help them adjust to American life. The lower admission numbers "will just gut programs, and, needless to say, it leaves a lot of people stranded in other countries," said Martin Ford, associate director of the Maryland Office for New Americans, which supports refugee programs.

Samedy Sok, director of LIRS affiliate Tressler Refugee and Immigration Services in Dundalk, has 37 refugees on his list. "They are ready for the airline ticket to come here. But with the impact of Sept. 11, they are sitting on their suitcases right now," he said.

Normally, 15 to 25 people are resettled through Sok's office each month. Between October and last week, when two people arrived from Vietnam and one from Cuba, he has had eight new arrivals.

The slowdown occurs as Baltimore's population of refugees has burgeoned. An estimated 600 immigrants have settled in Southeast Baltimore and Dundalk in recent years, hailing from countries such as Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. Some are renting or purchasing homes near Patterson Park, contributing to the revitalization effort there.

Hopeful that they will keep coming, the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation plans to open a multicultural center on Pulaski Highway next month called the Lazarus Center, with a computer lab and other services for the new U.S. arrivals.

Sok's voice chokes with emotion as he speaks about the slowdown. He came to America in 1982 after spending three years in a refugee camp in Thailand after fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He went to Philadelphia with the help of a Lutheran church.

"If America did not open their good heart back then, I wouldn't be here," Sok said. "I maybe [would have] died."

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