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December 21, 2001

Asylum News 4

Refugee Resettlement Slowly Resumes At House Hearings, Professor Argues Asylum-Seekers Need Not be Detained After a hiatus of nearly three months, the U.S. refugee resettlement program resumed on December 11, with a flight from Zagreb to Los Angeles. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has been coordinating the flights, more than 500 refugees were scheduled to travel to the United States in December. Some of those refugees' travel plans were cancelled, however, because security checks had not been completed in time. The refugee resettlement program has been frozen since the end of September, for two reasons. First, the Bush Administration delayed until November 21 before setting the maximum number of refugees to be admitted in fiscal year 2002 at 70,000 - a decision usually made at the end of September. Second, the Administration conducted a security review of the program. Since that review, more extensive security checks are being carried out on refugees. Special Advisory Opinions or SAOs are to be carried out on all men aged 16 to 55, from a classified list of countries. (An INS official said the list is simply "all countries" and the State Department refused to comment.) Also in the wake of the security review, all refugees over age 14 are being fingerprinted at the airports (ports of entry) where they arrive in the United States, and refugees may arrive only at four airports: JFK in New York, LAX in Los Angeles, O'Hare in Chicago, and MIA in Miami. This has caused delays of two to five hours at the airports, during the first week of renewed travel. To reduce the delays, which have caused refugees to miss connecting flights, and to avoid overwhelming INS personnel at the airports, IOM has set a limit of no more than 30 refugees per flight. That has, in turn, limited the number of refugees who can arrive per day. The State Department's bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration reported that 223 refugees arrived during the week of December 11. In the following week, 360 were scheduled to travel, and 89 were scheduled for the last week of December. This is a much lower rate than usual, although the traditional holiday moratorium on refugee resettlement has been dropped this year. Only Dec. 22-25th and 31st and Jan.1 will be considered program holidays. IOM officials said they hope to increase the rate of resettlement in January, and again in the following months. To meet the ceiling of 70,000 for the fiscal year, the rate of refugee processing and resettlement would have to increase very dramatically during the rest of the year. About 23,000 refugees had been approved for entry into the United States, and were stuck abroad when the program was stopped after September 11. Tens of thousands of others would like to be resettled in the United States, but for the moment they cannot, since the INS has suspended sending officers abroad to conduct refugee screening interviews. In many countries, the obstacle is to find a building that is considered sufficiently secure, in which to conduct interviews. In Moscow, for example, the INS was evacuated from its old building and has been temporarily relocated, but is now processing only non-refugee applications and petitions. The INS plans to return to work on refugee applications in February. In the meantime, thousands of refugees must simply wait. The long moratorium in refugee resettlement has also had serious consequences for the Americans whose work is to help refugees. Since resettlement agencies receive government funding according to the number of refugees they actually resettle, many have watched their budgets dry up, and have been forced to fire many staff members. At House Hearings on INS Detention, Professor Argues for Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers At the U.S. House of Representatives' Dec. 19 hearings on the "release policies" of the INS with respect to a wide range of immigration detainees (not just asylum-seekers) Professor Margaret Taylor of the Wake Forest University School of Law argued against mandatory detention. She urged the members of the House's Subcommittee on Immigration to consider supervised release as an alternative to detention, citing a Vera Institute for Justice study in which 91 percent of supervised people in immigration proceedings appeared for all of their hearings. Edward McElroy, INS district director for New York, attacked the study, saying it was statistically unreliable. Much of the hearing focused on the cases of individual detainees. One of the witnesses, Paul H. Thomson, Commonwealth Attorney for the city of Winchester, Virginia, recounted the case of Edward Nathaniel Bell, a Jamaican man who was convicted on a weapons charge, arrested by the INS and released on bond by an immigration judge. After his release, Bell killed a Virginia police officer. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) raised quite a different case. Rep. Lofgren asked about four Boy Scouts from Tanzania who attended the National Scout Jamboree in Virginia in July, hitchhiked to Washington D.C. and asked for asylum there. The four are now in detention, although, Lofgren said, their visas are valid until January. Joseph Greene, INS Acting Deputy Executive Associate Commissioner for Field Operations, answered that the boys are in a "sheltered care facility" not a prison. Lofgren retorted that she had experience with juvenile detention facilities and demanded to know why the four boys are still detained. Did the INS really think they were dangerous? Hesitating, Greene finally answered that the decision to detain the four Tanzanian boys, aged 14 to 17, was "driven as much by concern for the security of juveniles as for society at large." Some members of the audience looked incredulous. Twelve immigration and/or refugee advocacy organizations, including Human Rights First, signed onto a Detention Watch Network document entitled "A Review of the Department of Justice Immigration Detention Policies." It was circulated to the members of the House Immigration subcommittee before the hearings, and entered as part of the hearing testimony. For a copy of that review, email Cristiana Lundholm.