U.S. No Longer a Refuge for Poor, Huddled Masses

On November 6, 2013 Applied Research Center (ARC) was rebranded as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. The content on this page was published on the ARC website prior to the rebrand.
April 13, 2006

Historically, Americans have viewed refugees as victims requiring humanitarian resettlement. Yet the government's list of who deserves such rescue has always been driven by political considerations. Eastern Europeans, Cubans and Southeast Asians fleeing Communist regimes have been favored, while refugees from U.S.-backed dictatorships in Haiti and Central America were routinely denied.

My family belonged to the deserving class. I was born in 1975 in Vietnam, three months before the last helicopters loaded with South Vietnamese took off from Saigon. Later that year, my father reported for the "re-education" required of all South Vietnamese soldiers and was jailed for three years. His desperate decision to orchestrate the escape of three little girls, his wife and her sister began our family's role in the harrowing and often tragic journey of thousands of "boat people."

The United States resettled more than a million Southeast Asian refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam between 1975 and 1998. The largest resettlement in U.S. history led to the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which granted that status to anyone seeking to enter because of a "well- founded fear of persecution" based on race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. The welcome we received, while conflicted, was still a welcome -- one that has since worn out for new arrivals.

Twenty-five years after the passage of the Refugee Act, the acceptance rate in the United States has declined from a high of 142,000 per year during the 1980s to a low of 27,070 in 2002. With 12 million refugees around the world, the number accepted into the United States has dropped by more than half after the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States is no longer willing to be a refuge -- it now accepts between 30,000 and 50,000 refugees a year -- and it uses the specter of al Qaeda to justify its withdrawal.

The ironically named "Operation Liberty Shield" designates 33 countries whose nationals seeking asylum are automatically imprisoned upon arrival. Under former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department has also sought to restrict gender-based asylum claims. The Real ID Act makes it harder for refugees fleeing torture, forced abortions, honor killings and other violence to prove they qualify for asylum. The law allows an immigration judge to deny asylum, for instance, based on factors such as lack of eye contact or showing too little emotion during an asylum hearing.

The Saeeds, a Pakistani family in Queens, N.Y., were waiting for the immigration bureaucracy to work through its backlog and grant them sanctuary from the extortion and death threats that forced them to leave their home. But they were caught without legal status when the "special registration" program began in 2003.

As a Pakistani national, Muhammad Saeed was required to report to immigration officials, along with thousands of men from 25 Muslim countries. To avoid likely detention, the family fled to Canada. They waited there two years for asylum, but the Canadian government, taking a page out of the U.S. policy book, rejected their request several months ago.

Aleena Saeed, 16, had wanted to be a doctor but no longer thinks it possible. Having imbibed cliches about freedom of opportunity, she now seems resigned to lost dreams. "I don't think I'm going to become what I want to," she told me. "They say, 'don't wish upon a star, reach for one,' but I don't think that's true. I've learned that you shouldn't wish for something you can't have."

Today's refugees are suffering from the political calculus at play in the war on terrorism. As the United Nations marks today as World Refugee Day, it's up to those of us who benefited from an earlier generosity to point out the scapegoating. The American public must demand greater accountability from the government's national-security programs. To start, we must call for an end to the discriminatory detention of asylum seekers. Just as growing outcry has led to congressional debate over whether to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, resistance to punitive policies toward refugees and asylum seekers can contribute to a national security debate that doesn't scapegoat immigrants.

Fear of terrorism and an increasingly unsympathetic system have led America to retreat from its humanitarian commitment. Because the U.S. program is so unpredictable, advocates say, the United Nations Refugee Agency may become less willing to refer refugees here. And that may be exactly what the Bush administration hopes for.