The deployment of specially trained immigration agents abroad should help Jewish refugees and others hoping to enter the United States, immigration advocates say.
The decision to send the agents abroad came last month, just days before the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security, which will incorporate the Immigration and Naturalization Service and 21 other agencies under one umbrella.
On Nov. 22, INS Commissioner James Ziglar faxed a memo to his field offices outlining the creation of a specialized "Refugee Corps." The agency will deploy immigration agents to strategic locations abroad, where they will deal exclusively with the unique problems of refugees.
While Jews make up only a small minority of the refugees trying to enter the United States, the move could help some Jews from the former Soviet Union and Iran, who have faced difficulties and delays in the processing of their asylum requests.
Refugee admissions generally go up when handled by agents who have special training in the field.
Ziglar also sent a copy of his directive to Leonard Glickman, chairman of Refugee Council USA — made up of 19 refugee advocacy groups — and president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, one of the oldest immigrant resettlement agencies in the United States.
HIAS praised Ziglar’s move, saying it had been pushing for precisely this type of program for several years.
"This is probably one of the most important initiatives that Ziglar took before he left office," Glickman said. "On the macro level it will have a massive impact" on refugee processing, and there are those in the new Department of Homeland Security who are committed to it.
Mark Hetfield, director of international operations at HIAS, pointed to a 1999 letter the organization drafted suggesting that the INS adopt a Refugee Corps modeled after the successful Asylum Corps.
The Asylum Corps was created in 1990 because of INS officials’ inability to deal with the special needs of asylum seekers found living in the United States.
According to Ziglar’s directive, the proposed Refugee Corps will have headquarters in Washington, with refugee officers posted overseas to conduct interviews and settle asylum claims.
"By having a small group of trained overseas adjudicators, there will be an increase in approvals, more credibility" for the program, and "more attention paid to refugees and humanitarian efforts," Glickman said.
Kim Weissman, an INS spokeswoman, was surprised to hear of the commissioner’s last-minute memo, saying there is confusion within the agency because of its impending transfer to the Homeland Security Department.
Ziglar long had expressed his commitment to the issue of refugees, Weissman said. But refugee processing experienced delays in the wake of Sept. 11, when admissions were brought to a complete halt for several months because of security reasons.
As a result of this, hundreds of Jews from the former Soviet Union waiting in Moscow, and some 140 Iranian Jews stranded in Vienna, experienced hold-ups in the processing of their asylum requests.
Record-low refugee admissions were reported for fiscal year 2002, when just over 27,000 of the 70,000 refugees authorized for entry were admitted.
The Jews in Vienna, along with other persecuted religious minorities from Iran, were held up in Austria for nine months while waiting for security clearance to enter the United States. About half of the 140 were granted asylum, leaving 70 people in limbo.
In all, about 530 Iranians were denied refugee status, including a handful of Jews.
Weissman said Ziglar sent volunteer refugee officers abroad last February in response to the hold-up in admissions. The new Refugee Corps may be a way to institutionalize this extra effort.
The Refugee Corps would ensure the presence of a well-trained, dedicated staff focused exclusively on the management of refugees. Backers say it would be a vast improvement over temporarily assigned immigration officials, who often make critical decisions about entry into the United States with little preparation.
First priority will be given to those designated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as the neediest cases. Next will come groups of special interest to the United States, including Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union and the Iranians trapped in Vienna, as well as Somali Bantu living in Kenya and persecuted Bahais.
Third priority will be certain family reunion cases, Hetfield said.
In 1990, the Lautenberg Amendment established that Soviet Jews were likely targets of persecution, thus making it easier for them to apply for refugee status. Since they are officially protected by the State Department, they will continue to fare well under the new Corps, Hetfield said.
In general, the number of Jews entering the United States has been steadily decreasing. HIAS assisted 46,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union to enter the United States in 1992. That number dropped to just 2,293 in 2002.
An additional 267 Iranian Jews received help from HIAS this year.
But refugee advocates are still concerned that refugees from other nations could get lost in the new Homeland Security bureaucracy.
Hetfield calls the new Refugee Corps "a silver lining on a very dark cloud."
Immigrants in general, and especially refugees, should not be considered inherent threats to U.S. security, advocates say.
The department’s primary mission is to "respond to any future attacks, to reduce our vulnerability and, most important, prevent the terrorists from taking innocent American lives," President Bush has said.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association wrote a resolution in September opposing the inclusion of the INS in the Homeland Security Department.
"Placing them within the department would constitute a paradigm shift of enormous consequences: Immigrants would then be viewed through the lens of terrorism and security threats," the association’s board of governors said in a statement.
On June 26, Amnesty International USA testified before Congress about how a Homeland Security Department would impact refugees and asylum seekers.
If the department’s main task "is to prevent the arrival of terrorists, INS inspectors will likely first look upon undocumented asylum seekers as security threats and be less likely to recognize them as people in need of protection," Amnesty officials said.
Hetfield said the Refugee Corps, as outlined in Ziglar’s memo, is "just an administrative change" and does not incorporate "badly needed legal remedies" like the Refugee Protection Act, which HIAS and the Refugee Council USA have been pressing Congress to pass.
The bill would restore benefits to refugees and protect them from "expedited removal," a system used since 1997 that allows low-level INS officials and border patrol agents to decide whether to turn away refugees and asylum seekers immediately or detain them indefinitely.
The result is that refugees who have legitimate claims can be returned to dangerous situations, Hetfield said.
Few know exactly what the new corps will look like, or if it will affect current policies. Other governmental and non- governmental organizations, such as the State Department and the International Rescue Committee, say it is too early to tell.
As it stands now, all aspects of the INS will be incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security except one: The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement will continue to deal with unaccompanied immigrant children.
The rest of the INS will be split into two bureaus: The Bureau of Border Security will deal exclusively with enforcement, while the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigrations Services will deal primarily with services for immigrants, such as providing visas, green cards, citizen naturalization and the granting of asylum or refugee status.
The Asylum Corps and the new Refugee Corps will fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.