The Rev. John Yonker has been waiting nine months for a phone call. It has been that long since the First Christian Church of Columbia applied to resettle a refugee family from war-torn Sudan, but there’s still no word on their arrival.
“We are kind of anxious,” Yonker said. “People keep wondering when they will come.”
He said the church is ready for the seven-member Shoune family. The church has collected donations, contacted possible interpreters and even has a home for the family to rent. But now the church can only wait.
The Sudanese family was approved for entrance by the former Immigration and Naturalization Services in April 2001. But now the Shounes are among the thousands of waiting families scattered in refugee camps around the world, families who are finding it harder to enter the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Yonker said arrivals of refugees from Africa usually take longer than those from other places, but the Refugees and Immigrant Services of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City told him that enhanced security measures are contributing to their delay.
The new security measures halted refugee arrivals for two months after the attacks and delayed the entrance of thousands by the end of the 2002 fiscal year. In the previous fiscal year, 84,340 refugees entered the country. But only 43,804 arrived in the 2002 fiscal year.
Arrivals during the past 12 months have been even lower. By June of this fiscal year, 21,385 refugees had touched U.S. soil, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, D.C. That is less than a third of the 70,000 authorized by President Bush.
Hiram Ruiz, spokesman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, said that two years after the attacks, arrivals should be quicker and more efficient than they are now.
“It’s very disconcerting when you know that we are talking about the lives of people who have fled persecution, seeking freedom, waiting to come here, and yet not able to get here,” Ruiz said.
The numbers of arrivals in mid-Missouri have also dropped dramatically since the Sept. 11 attacks, said Alice Wolters, head of the Refugees and Immigrant Services of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City. Wolters is helping Yonker with the Shounes’ case.
The Catholic refugee agency covers 38 counties around mid-Missouri, including Boone County. It has received two refugee arrival cases in the past 12 months, compared with 49 cases received during the previous fiscal year and 64 cases the year before that.
“Our numbers are ridiculous,” Wolters said. “It is evident that added security measures needed to be put in place. Unfortunately, refugees are caught in it and seem to be paying a high price for the criminal transgressions of a very small percentage of people.”
Some refugee resettlement agencies blame the delays on the bureaucracy created by the new security measures and question the political will of the U.S. Department of State, which is in charge of refugee admission.
However, some groups think homeland security is a good reason to delay refugee admission. David Ray, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based think tank, said the government should focus more on securing its borders than admitting foreigners, including refugees.
“It’s not a question of the number of refugees entering but a question of ensuring the American public that refugees coming into the U.S. have gone through the proper screening process,” Ray said. “And if the scrutinization of refugee applicants slows down the flow of refugees into the United States, so be it.”
Refugees from overseas have to go through a Department of State background screening as well as personal interviews with refugee agencies and officers from the Homeland Security Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Depending on a refugee’s country of origin, the FBI and CIA might do a further security review, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees.
The process can take months, and officials at the Department of State said they are working to reduce the backlog