Refugee Reunions Stymied by Anti-Terror Rules
Judson Addy and Agnes Tarawally, immigrants from war-shattered Liberia, are grateful to be American citizens. These days, however, their patriotism coexists with deep frustration.
Both Addy and Tarawally have children and grandchildren stranded in a refugee camp in Guinea, their long-standing efforts to settle in the United States bogged down by security measures that were tightened after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I don’t have any bad feelings toward America,” said Tarawally, who lives in the Bronx and works at a Manhattan hotel. “But I need my children to come join me. It’s a lot of pain for us, a lot of heartbreak.”
The number of refugees resettled in the United States dropped steadily over the past decade from a peak of 132,000 in 1992. The Bush administration set a goal of 70,000 for the 2002 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, but only 27,000 were admitted as security clearances became more stringent after the attacks.
The administration has set a target of 50,000 refugee admissions this year, but says its effort to speed up the clearance process faces daunting challenges -- including threats of violence against U.S. field officers and the discovery of widespread fraud by refugees falsely claiming to have relatives in America.
Private agencies that help refugees resettle in the United States understand the government’s dilemmas, yet plead for speedier handling of cases.
“Nobody wants the program to be a vehicle for terrorists to enter the United States, especially those of us working with the refugees,” said Ralston Deffenbaugh, president of the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“On the other hand, the balance seems to have gotten skewed,” he said. “The price is being paid by the tens of thousands of people stranded overseas who are eligible for resettlement.”
According to refugee agencies, roughly 22,000 refugees -- including the Addy and Tarawally relatives -- had been approved for admission to the United States before the Sept. 11 attacks under a family-reunification program. Many remain overseas in squalid and sometimes dangerous camps, the agencies say.
Tarawally, 46, moved to the United States in 1980. Her two grown daughters won approval in 1998 to join her, she said, but have been unable to get updated information about their cases from U.S. diplomats or immigration officials.
They are living with more than 9,000 other Liberian refugees in a tent camp in neighboring Guinea. Only rarely are they able to make telephone calls to their mother.
“They ask me, ‘When are we coming there?’ They start crying,” Tarawally said. “They don’t have anywhere else to go. They’re scared.”
Addy, 79, came to the United States in 1985 after being jailed and beaten by the security forces of strongman Samuel Doe. Addy said he was harassed because he worked for Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for International Development in Liberia.
Addy’s wife and two of his sons were able to join him in New York. But 12 more of his children, plus 22 grandchildren, are stuck at the same refugee camp in Laine, Guinea, even though they were told in August 2001 that they could enter the United States.
“I served [the] U.S. government, made some sacrifices,” Addy said. “You think someone will help you, but you don’t know who to turn to. Because of Sept. 11, everything went dead.”
Private agencies that assist refugees, and whose government funding has dwindled because of the reduced influx, have offered suggestions aimed at expediting reviews.
“One idea we pushed was to have the FBI flag humanitarian cases when they’re doing clearances and put them at the front of the line,” said Wendy Young of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Now such refugee cases are mixed with other foreigners who merely want to visit the United States or enter on work permits.
A Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said all U.S. agencies involved in refugee work are committed to streamlining the review process, but also are realistic about the difficulties.
Fraud is a continuing problem, and another challenge is posed by fast-moving political developments around the world, the official said.
Advocacy groups consider this year’s target of 50,000 refugee admissions to be modest, yet doubt that it will be reached.
“We’ve always been a world leader, but there’s been a real erosion in refugee protection,” Young said. “It can’t be overstated how important family reunification is. It places tremendous stress on people to be divided.”
Mangala Sharma has seen that stress from two perspectives -- as an activist in Decatur, Ga., who works with refugee families, and as a former refugee struggling to win approval for her husband and two daughters to join her in Georgia.
Sharma, 38, grew up as a member of the ethnic Nepalese minority in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan and was persecuted for campaigning for equal rights for her people. She fled Bhutan in 1992, spent eight years in a refugee camp in Nepal, then was granted political asylum in the United States in March 2001.
Her husband, a doctor, and daughters, 12 and 14, remain in Nepal despite strenuous efforts to qualify for family reunification. Sharma hasn’t seen them since February 2000.
“It’s an important time for my daughters -- they’re growing fast,” Sharma said. “It’s affecting my work. When a caseworker like myself has this tormented story, it’s hard to help others.”
Sharma said she tries to call her family in Katmandu once a week, but the calls -- and monthly $200 checks that she mails them -- consume most of her salary.
“I’m paying for their rent, my rent; their food, my food,” she said. “The pain is so much. I bought birthday cards for them, but I couldn’t write anything. Nothing comes out of me.”
Sharma has received awards from human rights groups and spoken at international conferences, but her contacts have yet to yield results.
“I’m educated; I know people who have some influence,” she said. “Think about other people who have a similar situation and have no voice at all.”
A common complaint among the divided families is a lack of updates from U.S. officials about their cases. Advocacy groups working on behalf of the families say it is often difficult to locate a government representative with detailed knowledge of a specific case.
“I have made so many requests -- I don’t know what more to do,” Sharma said. “It’s one bureaucrat after another.... My husband calls the embassy [in Katmandu]. Each time, he’s told the papers have not come.”
Security factors aren’t the only reason for the curtailed flow of refugees. The State Department said the intensified security reviews uncovered extensive fraud, including misrepresentations in 40% of last year’s cases in which refugees claimed to have U.S. relatives.
Deffenbaugh of the Lutheran refugees service acknowledged that fraud is a persistent problem.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” he said. “Some who can’t get through the narrow door have tried to say what they think needs to be said.”
But refugees with legitimate claims should not suffer because of deceit by others, he said.
“The process is becoming so gummed up that genuine refugees are being made to wait far too long,” he said. “In some cases, it’s too late. We have older people dying in the camps for lack of medical treatment, young women being sexually abused.”
Florentina Chiu, a former refugee from Romania who oversees cases for the Lutheran refugee agency, said the FBI has a backlog of more than 300,000 requests from foreigners to enter the United States, including refugees.
“If you’re a visitor and have to wait six months, at least you are safe and warm,” she said. “If you’re a refugee in a camp, wishing to reunite with your mother or brother, it’s a problem.”
Having endured a lengthy family-reunification procedure herself, Chiu struggles to provide divided families with counsel that is both hopeful and realistic.
“We live in a great country -- that’s the light at the end of the tunnel, that they will be here in America someday,” Chiu tells her clients. “The problem is the bureaucracy, so in the meantime, try to be strong. They just have to be patient.”