Border Line

In the Feb. 13 issue of The New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash argued that anti-Europeanism is on the rise in the United States. This sentiment, he suggested, taps into a variety of cultural prejudices, including the notion that the American love of liberty is a kind of haven from European paternalism. "For millions of Americans, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Europe was the place you escaped from," Ash wrote. It is true that past differences between the United States and Europe on questions of immigration and national identity persist today. Right-wing European politicians still employ anti-immigrant rhetoric -- rhetoric that is far less common or explicit in the United States. But on the question of asylum and refugees, the Bush administration is doing its best imitation of Fortress Europe. Which means that we may not be able to celebrate American attitudes toward immigration as being distinct from -- or better than -- Europe's for long.

For months hundreds of Pakistanis per week tried to claim asylum in Canada in advance of a March 21 registration deadline requiring men from Pakistan and other countries to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (which has since been folded into the Department of Homeland Security). A similar scenario is playing out again this week, as a Friday registration deadline looms for Egyptians, Indonesians, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Bangladeshis living in the United States. As I wrote in January, the registration program is punitive and more or less ineffective at stopping potential terrorists. Now many of those fleeing the registration program by heading north are being rejected by Canadian authorities, only to get arrested by American officials when they are forced back across the border. Hundreds of Pakistanis have already been deported or are in deportation hearings. (On March 12 alone, 103 Pakistanis were deported on a chartered plane.) But while much attention has been focused on the registration program, it is only the tip of the Bush administration's creeping nativism.

Among the most disturbing developments is a new accord -- signed but not yet implemented -- between Canada and the United States that would make it impossible for an alien coming through one country to seek asylum in the other. So none of the foreign nationals currently heading north would be allowed to even apply for asylum in Canada under the new rules. This "Safe Third Country Agreement," as it is called, takes a page right out of the European Union's anti-immigrant playbook, as EU nations similarly reject outright any asylum seeker who has first passed through another EU country.

The ostensible rationale for these laws is to prevent "asylum shopping," which occurs when foreigners go hunting for the country with the most lenient asylum rules. In reality, however, asylum seekers usually go to countries where they have family members or where expatriate communities already exist. Asylum shopping was at most a nominal concern during the U.S.-Canada negotiations that led to the Safe Third Country Agreement. In fact, the accord will likely increase the number of foreigners seeking asylum in the United States, as more asylum seekers currently pass through the United States en route to Canada than vice versa.

And how does the Bush administration plan to deal with the extra asylum seekers? Deport them or throw them in jail, of course. (The Canadians are well aware of how tough Americans are on aliens, as our northern neighbors scuttled a similar, earlier agreement prior to September 11 because they thought that U.S. asylum policies were too draconian.) The administration is now pursuing a complementary border agreement with Mexico.

President Bush has battened down the hatches in other ways as well. Since 9-11, the number of refugees -- refugees apply from outside the United States, as opposed to asylum seekers who apply once on American soil -- entering the country has dropped precipitously. The administration capped refugee admissions for fiscal year 2002 at 70,000, but only 27,058 actually made it in. To get an idea of how low that number actually is, consider that between 1996 (the last time there was a major change in immigration policy) and 2001, the average number of admitted refugees was about 75,000 per year -- and prior to 1996, it was even higher. The low numbers are as much the result of bureaucratic incompetence as willful obstructionism. During a period of a few months in 2002, for example, there was no money to administer the refugee program because it had accidentally been left out of the appropriations budget.

But the increasing layers of security checks imposed on the refugee process are also to blame. Refugees simply aren't getting the newly required clearances needed to board a plane for the United States. Most of the delays have been a consequence of poor interagency communication, not enough government staffers or computers, and inadequate training. Security checks have taken so long that sometimes other approvals, such as medical clearances, expire while a refugee awaits security clearance. These delays have kept thousands of refugees already approved for resettlement from finding safe haven in the United States. The 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees approved earlier this year are a case in point: The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a refugee assistance group, estimates that of the 12,000 Bantus granted normal approval, only about 1,200 will actually get their security clearances and enter the United States by the end of this fiscal year.

Addressing this problem is next to impossible because the new policies were designed by a secret task force that does not allow refugee advocates any input. The task force is composed of representatives of the many government departments -- the departments of State and Homeland Security, as well as the FBI and the CIA -- that handle refugee applications. No one department is in charge of refugee applications, nor is any one department responsible for fixing the inevitable mistakes that occur. "You still don't know who is ultimately responsible," says Gideon Aronoff, the Washington representative for HIAS, of the lack of bureaucratic accountability for expediting these clearances. Others echo Aronoff's frustration. "We just don't know what's going on and who's making decisions," says Ralston Deffenbaugh Jr., president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "And when we ask they say, 'We can't tell you.'"

Though the official reason offered for this secrecy is that classified intelligence is at stake, the true reason is likely more mundane: The administration has an interest in keeping quiet the fact that new, post-9-11 security checks for refugees were poorly planned -- and put in place without enough personnel, training or money.

No agency wants to take responsibility for actually approving someone's release, even though -- security checks aside -- refugees are already the most extensively screened individuals entering the United States. It is therefore always easier for officials to deny or at least stall applications because approving them carries a risk, small as it may be, that someone missed a piece of evidence. That's why those lucky applicants who are not initially denied often get stuck in a bureaucratic morass, as their applications get passed back and forth between the State Department, the Homeland Security Department, the FBI and the CIA. Backlogs and delays accumulate because no organization is willing to exercise leadership and actually approve the foreigners for entry. Without anyone to hold accountable for this excess caution, refugees languish in their home countries. "It's almost like it's this whole complicated series of rational bureaucratic decisions up and down the line that have gone mad in their final result," Deffenbaugh says of the security clearance process. Aronoff worries that security concerns have been carried too far. "We have to understand that there are other values as well," he says, "including the humanitarian values of refugee protection that can get lost if you're looking for absolute certainty."

During the first half of this fiscal year (October to March), 8,860 refugees have arrived in America. That means the United States is accepting refugees at a fraction of the annual ceiling (70,000) the Bush administration itself has prescribed. It also means that private groups -- which the government pays to help resettle refugees -- may not be able to keep their operations going much longer. If the resettlement infrastructure collapses, it will be hard to build back up. A trickle of a few thousand refugees here and there will become the new norm -- and a program that used to set the United States apart from Europe will practically disappear.

Alex Gourevitch is a Prospect writing fellow.