Sunday October 18, 2015
America should reclaim its role as a beacon for those fleeing persecution and war
Two factors are responsible for the change of heart. Refugees and asylum-seekers have become ensnared in a partisan fight in Congress over immigration. And the 9/11 terrorist attacks have changed the perception of refugees from vulnerable to threating, which has in turn had a deadening effect on the bureaucracies that process their claims.
In the current refugee crisis, though, America is on the sidelines (see chart). In recent years it has taken in just under 70,000 refugees a year on average (would-be refugees apply while in other countries; asylum-seekers once they are in America). The number of asylum applications approved tends to be less than half that figure. This pales in comparison with the 1.5m asylum-seekers, many of them Syrian, expected in Germany this year. The White House recently promised to increase the intake of refugees to 85,000 in the next fiscal year (10,000 will be from Syria) and to 100,000 in the one after that. Even this modest increase has been contested: Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, has introduced a bill to “rein in” the administration’s plan to admit more Syrian refugees.
Refugees apply for resettlement at American embassies or through the United Nations. If they pass that first hurdle, they are screened by outposts of the Department of State all over the world. They undergo investigations of their biography and identity; FBI biometric checks of their fingerprints and photographs; in-person interviews by Department of Homeland Security officers; medical screenings as well as investigations by the National Counter-terrorism Centre and by American and international intelligence agencies. The process may take as long as three years, sometimes longer. No other person entering America is subjected to such a level of scrutiny.
Refugee resettlement is the least likely route for potential terrorists, says Kathleen Newland at the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank. Of the 745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Asylum-seekers have to navigate through a similar bureaucratic tangle. The decision to grant asylum is made by a Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer. If that officer finds that the applicant did not make his case convincingly, he receives a “Notice of Intent to Deny” (NOID) as long as his immigration status as, say, a tourist or student is still valid. He is then allowed to submit further evidence to bolster his case, though such decisions are rarely reversed. If the applicant’s immigration status is no longer valid, he is placed in deportation proceedings before an immigration court. The applicant then has a second chance to make his case in court while a government lawyer argues that he should be deported. In March this year, USCIS had 82,175 asylum cases pending. Last year each immigration judge handled, on average, 1,500 cases a year, double or even triple the caseload of other judges.
Kludged to death
The decisions that this system churns out often have little to do with the merit of individual cases. Joseph was unlucky because after his arrival in America he fell into the hands of a fraudulent translator pretending to be a lawyer, to whom he paid thousands of dollars for help with the asylum interview. As Joseph’s case was so badly presented, the officer denied his request and referred him to an immigration court for deportation.
In theory, as a signatory of the UN convention of 1951, America has a legal obligation to protect refugees. In practice the public is not willing to accept the boundless consequences of this commitment, so the federal government limits the overall number by presenting refugees and asylum-seekers with an overwhelming show of bureaucratic kludge. One idea to ease the worry about the cost of refugees is to adopt private sponsorship of them, as Canada does. Since 1979 Canada’s privately financed programme has resettled more than 200,000 refugees. Community organisations, churches and members of ethnic minorities pool funds to pay for refugees to come to Canada and to help them settle and find work. A study of the Canadian programme in 2007 suggests that privately sponsored refugees become self-sufficient more quickly than those supported by Canada’s government.
“We have a history of openness to immigrants and refugees, which has been good for us, and made the DNA of our country” says Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. Mr Haass argues that it is in America’s interest to help Germany, one of its staunchest allies, with the seemingly never-ending stream of asylum-seekers pouring into the country. Unfortunately, most contenders for the presidency do not agree. Only Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and one of the least likely winners of the Democratic Party’s nomination, has unequivocally said that America should do more for Syrian refugees.