For Refugees, a Longer Wait at America's Door
New York Times - By LYNETTE HOLLOWAY - The Immigration and Naturalization Service, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has increased its scrutiny of refugees seeking to enter the United States and the relatives who sponsor their entry.
The changes come after the authorities reviewed immigration procedures during a temporary moratorium on refugee admissions that was imposed after the attacks. The federal authorities found that little was being done to verify either the identity of refugees or their ties to relatives in the United States, State Department officials said.
While refugees of every race, ethnicity and religion will be investigated, the government will focus on men who are 14 to 65 years old from countries where Al Qaeda, the terrorist group run by Osama bin Laden, has been operating, officials said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has identified eight countries as havens for terrorists: Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen.
Immigration authorities also found that under the previous regulations, anyone could travel in the place of a refugee approved for entry, with little more than a forged ID, or a well-placed bribe. To prevent this, officials have taken steps to thwart identity fraud, including prohibiting refugees from making their own travel arrangements. The arrangements will be made through the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental resettlement group, which is under contract with the State Department.
Under the new rules, before refugees can board a plane for the United States, they must meet with an official from the migration organization, who will compare them with photographs in their application files. And refugees are now fingerprinted at four major ports of entry — New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles — before heading to their final destinations.
The increased scrutiny of refugees is the latest move against foreigners since Sept. 11. In late October, the government began cracking down on immigrants who had overstayed their student visas. By that time, more than 1,000 people, most Middle Eastern, had been detained on immigration or criminal charges, or as material witnesses to the terrorist attacks. In November, law enforcement authorities began interviewing hundreds of young men from countries with suspected links to terrorism.
Even before scrutiny was increased, refugees had undergone the most stringent background checks of any group of people seeking admission to the United States, officials and advocates for refugees say, and the changes will add to the time it takes to enter the country.
Administrators at resettlement agencies complained that the new procedures would increase the caseloads of overworked immigration service workers and end up keeping more refugees out of the country.
They say that refugees, who live in disease-prone camps while fleeing war or persecution, survive on little more than rice and beans for months at a time, and need access to the United States more urgently than any other class of immigrant.
"It will be much harder to prove that you have been a victim of persecution," said Erol Kekic, director of resettlement and processing at Church World Service, a refugee assistance program based in New York City. "It will be much harder to gain a spot to be interviewed by the I.N.S. because of worker caseloads. We must remember these people are victims of terror."
In the past, officials identified refugees based on affidavits of relationships submitted by their American relatives, said Leonard S. Glickman, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, based in New York City.
Frequently, refugees show up at settlement camps with little more than the clothes they are wearing, and without identification, making it hard for them to prove their identities. Before the restrictions were tightened, a person in America could fill out an affidavit claiming anyone as a relative and the claim was never verified, State Department officials and resettlement organizations say.
The intense scrutiny is new for refugees, who were subjected to rigorous screening of a different sort. Mostly, they were considered crime victims themselves.
Now, investigators will check criminal and immigration histories, at the beginning of a refugee's application process, rather than at the end. Refugees must list the names of relatives on their immigration applications. Investigators will look for anything that could link applicants or their immediate families, in the United States and abroad, to known terrorists, officials said.
"There are special requirements in place now for people who meet a certain profile," a State Department official said. "In most cases it has nothing to do with the person; they just come from a country that has a lot of terrorism or Al Qaeda activity."
The new measures have already yielded results. The State Department official said investigators had spotted the names of refugee applicants who appeared to be related to Mohamed Abdi, a refugee from Somalia who entered the United States in 1993 and is suspected of having links to one of the hijackers in the terror attacks. Immigration officials are reviewing Mr. Abdi's file to determine if the applicants' names are listed on his application.