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Refugees’ Tales Heard by Powerful Audience of One

Times Staff Writers

After hearing graphic stories of suffering directly from persecuted young people who fled to the United States, President Bush intervened personally to sharply increase the number of refugees admitted to the country -- undoing the severe limits placed on such admissions for security reasons after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The move to restore the world’s largest refugee assistance program, and the president’s role in it, has gone largely unnoticed amid recent squabbles in the Republican Party over related questions of post-Sept. 11 immigration and asylum policies.

But the details were visible in the thick budget proposal released by the White House last week. The State Department, the documents show, would aim to admit about 20,000 additional refugees next year -- bringing the total admissions closer to the 70,000 level admitted in the years before the terrorist attacks.

The White House involvement over the last several months helped overcome security concerns, refugee advocates say. And they point to an encounter the president had with two refugees in June -- arranged by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives -- as a moment that motivated the president to apply pressure where it was needed.

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“Those meetings jump-started a serious government effort to increase admissions last year,” said Sarah Petrin, government liaison for a leading refugee advocacy organization, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

In the closed-door session with the president, organized by James Towey, a top aide to Bush and director of the faith-based office, two young refugees who arrived several years ago recounted their stories of bloodshed and escape.

A 21-year-old Liberian woman, Veronica Braewell, broke down in tears as she told Bush about her experience at age 13 of being left for dead on a pile of bodies by militants, of having watched them slice open the bellies of pregnant women and kill unarmed schoolchildren.

As she sobbed, the president handed Braewell a handkerchief and embraced her, Braewell recalled in a tearful interview from her home in Allentown, Pa.

She told the president of her plans to become a nurses’ assistant, and thanked him for her rescue.

“Thank the American people,” she said the president responded. “Lots of people make this possible,” he said, and specifically mentioned the work of organizations like Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, two religious groups that resettle refugees in the U.S.

Those organizations and others, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, have long urged the U.S. to maintain its leadership in rescuing refugees.

In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. broadly restricted all entry to the country, not only for immigrants but for those who had secured refugee status, meaning they had shown a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on their political or religious beliefs, race or ethnicity. Some refugees in the Middle East who were approved for admission to the U.S. in 2001 were only now receiving word that they might be able to come.

The delays occurred for a variety of reasons. At the departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security, officials urged the administration to go slow in order to provide a better vetting of refugees to make sure they had no ties to terrorists.

In 2002 and 2003, admissions sank to fewer than 29,000. It had a horrendous effect on refugee camps and was hard on the organizations that resettled people in the U.S., advocates said. The disruption caused some U.S. refugee organizations to lay off employees and dismantle resettlement programs that had been building for more than 25 years. At the same time, refugees of all ages in war-ravaged Africa and elsewhere were stuck in camps.

In June, when Bush met with the young woman who fled Liberia, he also spoke with a 22-year-old college student from Sudan. Elijah Anyieth told the president about the seven years he spent in a refugee camp in Kenya -- often with just an ear of corn a day to eat -- and described his escape on foot from his warn-torn country after the death of his parents.

“He said, ‘Elijah, I’m glad to hear your story,’ ” recalled Anyieth, who said his mother was killed by militants in Sudan and his father died of cholera. Now a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, Anyieth found safety in the U.S. when Catholic Charities helped him settle in Richmond, Va.

“He said that my story shows why the American people like to help people’s lives,” Anyieth said. “From the moment he said that to me, I knew that he was going to do something.”

The meeting with the refugees occurred in a Washington hotel before the president spoke to a conference about his faith-based initiative. The private session was supposed to last 20 minutes, according to one participant, but went on for an hour.

About the same time as Bush’s talk with the refugees, the National Security Council began convening meetings to assess increasing refugee admissions. Last week, the White House released its budget proposal, which calls for spending an additional $154.4 million in 2006 for refugee admissions and resettlement in the U.S.

A good portion of the money will be available for programs in California, which has historically been the first or second destination for refugees.

The president’s support for refugees comes with little political risk, despite concerns about security and financial cost at a time of budget cutbacks, advocates and experts say.

Aid to refugees is one of the few topics in Washington that unites Christians, Jews, liberals and even conservatives who tend to favor tight restrictions on immigration. Increasing refugee admissions from war-torn Africa is a popular stance among African American religious leaders -- a political group that the White House is courting in its effort to cut into a key Democratic constituency.

The issue is also important to the religious and social welfare groups that are the centerpiece of Bush’s drive to increase government aid to faith-based groups -- a goal shared by evangelicals, which are an increasingly powerful component of the GOP base.

“It’s not a conservative principle in the same way that it’s not a liberal or Democratic principle,” said Gideon Aronoff, Washington lobbyist for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “It’s an American principle to protect refugees, and it’s a faith-based principle.”

Two of the most conservative Republicans in Congress on immigration issues -- House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.), chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus -- do not intend to fight Bush on the refugee increases, spokesmen for both men said Friday.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing immigration matters and a frequent critic of the administration’s approach to refugees, praised Bush’s plan to increase the numbers.

Kennedy and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) had asked former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell repeatedly since 2002 to restore refugee admission numbers to previous levels. Powell, since replaced by Condoleezza Rice, expressed strong interest in doing so -- but until this year, concerns about cost and security hampered his efforts.

Refugee advocates blame the complications on “bureaucratic lethargy,” as one put it, noting that some agency officials had resisted increases despite high-level political support.

A report issued last year by a former State Department official, David A. Martin, now a law professor at the University of Virginia, said the refugee system was widely thought to be in crisis because of bureaucratic disagreements and other inefficiencies that were contributing to dwindling admissions.

Some progress was made when the State Department increased admissions from 28,000 in 2003 to about 52,000 in 2004. In 2005, the administration is expected to admit a similar number, but the 2005 budget does not contain enough money to support that level.

Refugee groups are lobbying Congress for increased funding, with an additional infusion for this year.


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