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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration > What We Are Saying > Remarks > 2003

Immigration After 9/11: The View From the United States

Arthur E. Dewey, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration
Remarks to the American Society for International Law
Washington, DC
April 3, 2003

(As Prepared for Delivery)

I am pleased to be here with you today to discuss the impact of 9/11 on the U.S. refugee admissions program and international refugee protection generally.

Given the great working relationship I had with Jim Ziglar while he was INS Commissioner, I was initially pleased to get this invitation from him. Then when he told me that I would be speaking to a room full of several hundred lawyers, I--a non-lawyer--hesitated. Fortunately, he promised me that he would respond to any pointed legal challenges that would be raised during the session, and I took him up on the offer.

Refugee Admissions

My Bureau works closely with the Department of Homeland Security (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) in managing the program that resettles refugees to the United States from abroad. The program in its current form was established under the Refugee Act of 1980, and has brought over 2,000,000 refugees from all over the world to the U.S. since its inception. I think the American people have viewed the program as a great success, and this is reflected in the strong support the program continues to receive from the President, the Congress, the refugee advocacy community and the public. As persons interested in international affairs, I would guess that most in this room have probably had contact with someone who has benefited or been involved in some way in this program, and that you have a positive impression of that experience.

Before exploring the impact 9/11 has had on this program, it's important to take note of the very significant ways in which the program had changed prior to that. During the cold war and for several years afterwards, the bulk of the people we admitted to the U.S. as refugees came from the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia. These were very large programs, where there were important economies of scale and relatively few difficulties in admitting most of their beneficiaries. As these programs have naturally wound down, we have faced a need to interview much smaller clusters of refugee candidates in some 80 different countries. So even before 9/11, we were faced with the realities of a reduced and far more diverse U.S. refugee admissions program.

With 9/11, the admissions program came under the same scrutiny that other immigration programs did. And, in our view, rightly so: we owed it to the American people to do everything we could to prevent any avenue from being used by terrorists to infiltrate the United States. Because terrorism thrives on unconventional weapons such as commercial aircraft, it is reasonable to expect that terrorists will use unexpected and unconventional means to enter the U.S. Such demented individuals might see the U.S. refugee admissions program as a soft underbelly for such entry. Thus, after 9/11, a freeze on refugee admissions was put into effect for over two months while a comprehensive review of procedures was undertaken. A number of new security measures were adopted as a result of this review, including conducting additional security checks of applicants against existing databases, verifying in new ways the identity of all refugee travelers before they board flights to the U.S., and fingerprinting all approved applicants either before departure to or upon their arrival in the U.S.

While making the program safer and stronger, the freeze and the enhanced security measures that followed significantly cut into the number of refugees we were able to admit in fiscal year 2002. Indeed, we were able to bring in only 27,000 refugees in FY2002 out of a Presidentially authorized ceiling of 70,000. But given the challenges we faced, that was no small feat.

Jim Ziglar and I established a Joint Task Force in early 2002 to help on refugee admissions problem-solving. In addition to State and INS, we added the NSC, CIA and FBI as members. This JTF met weekly in intensive sessions to strike the right balance between open borders and homeland security. The progress we were able to make in 2002 is largely attributed to the interagency partnership forged in this Joint Task Force.

But since 9/11, new problems have emerged, many of which are outside our control. For example, in Africa, security concerns in refugee camps in Kenya and civil unrest in Cote d’Ivoire have prevented us from interviewing some 19,000 refugees we had planned on admitting this year. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security has found considerable fraud in cases of Africans who petition to have alleged family members considered for the program. Because of these concerns and other discrepancies, DHS has undertaken a special review of these cases, which will result in denial of a significant number of refugees interviewed in FY 2001 and FY 2002 from this region.

Finally, the Middle East was another region from which we had hoped to process large numbers of refugees this year. Yet security concerns and now the war effort in Iraq have prevented DHS officials from traveling to locations in that part of the world. Enhanced security checks have also impeded the travel of refugees from these countries even though they may have been previously approved by DHS.

Nevertheless, we continue to work hard to address these challenges. Our Joint Task Force remains in session. We are meeting regularly with the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies to improve the process of conducting the necessary background checks. And we are doing everything we can to obtain the necessary clearances so that officers can travel to the areas where possible resettlement populations are located.

With the decline of the large, relatively easy caseloads of the past, we also continue to look at new groups of refugees who may need resettlement. For instance, we have embarked on a major program to bring Somali Bantu from the horn of Africa, where they have been outcasts for many years. We are moving forward on an initiative to offer resettlement to roughly 10-15,000 "Meshketian Turks" in southern Russia who have been unable to obtain Russian citizenship. We have begun a small program to process vulnerable Colombian refugees resident in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

We have also taken action to bolster the capacity of our key partners in the resettlement effort–the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and non-governmental organizations--to identify and refer to us the refugees who may need this solution. We have provided funding to UNHCR that will permit them to hire 18 new resettlement officers in Africa and Latin America. We also just held our first workshop in Nairobi to train NGOs in that region in how cases may be referred to the U.S. resettlement program.

Thus, while 9/11 has obliged us to do everything reasonably possible to shore up our borders, we have also sought to continue our important tradition of offering permanent homes to the oppressed and persecuted from around the world. We are confident we can build an even stronger and, at the same time, more diverse program than we have had in the past.

World-wide Protection Developments

9/11 has, of course, also had significant effects on the state of refugee protection world-wide. Before focusing on the problems, however, I think we must remind ourselves of a huge accomplishment: namely, the fact that millions of Afghans–many of whom had been outside Afghanistan for decades--are now able to return home. The best solution to the refugee plight meant, in this case, reduced numbers of refugee candidates for admission to the United States, but we are happy to forego those numbers if it means that people can return to their original homes, families and cultures.

Prior to the change of regimes in Afghanistan, the number of Afghan refugees was second only to Palestinians among the world’s refugee population. Since the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban, over two million of these refugees, as well as approximately 600,000 internally displaced persons, have been able to return home. We expect significant additional returns over the next two years, and are doing everything we can to ensure that Afghanistan will be able to receive and integrate them.

We are hopeful that the U.S.-led effort to depose Saddam Hussein will produce a similar outcome for the some 800,000 Iraqis who have been forced to flee his brutal and dangerous regime.

Of course, 9/11, along with rising numbers of asylum claims, has caused most governments to review and tighten up their own refugee programs. In Great Britain, for instance, on the heels of arresting several asylum seekers who possessed the deadly nerve agent ricin, Tony Blair and his government are exploring measures to reduce the number of people who claim asylum there. Switzerland came very close to adopting one of the most restrictive asylum laws yet considered in the developed world. And a number of southern Mediterranean countries have recently put in place a new interdiction program for migrants seeking to reach their shores.

Despite such developments, however, it was reassuring to see the world’s parties to the Refugee Convention and Protocol re-affirm their commitment to these instruments at the ministerial conference held in December 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. Most countries in the world, even many of those that are not parties to the Refugee Convention or Protocol, continue to recognize the necessity of providing protection to those fleeing persecution or war in their home countries.

And the United States intends to continue to be a leader in promoting respect for these fundamental principles, whether it's for North Koreans fleeing to China, Liberians to Sierra Leone or Colombians to Ecuador. 9/11 may have given us reason to be more vigilant about those who may threaten us, but it has not diminished our commitment to aiding and protecting the world's most vulnerable people.

Thank you very much. I welcome your questions.


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