Attempting to make dinner conversation at a May 2004 refugee contractors’ conference, I speculated about the chances of Serbs, now hounded and persecuted in Kosovo, coming to America on the U.S. refugee program.  In the last ten years, the percentage of Serbs in the Serbian province of Kosovo has declined from over ten percent to three percent and is still dropping.  My interlocutor, an Albanian from Kosovo, answered, “We don’t want them here.  Besides, soon there will be no Serbs left in Kosovo to resettle.”  At this, the entire table of “refugee workers”—all from “faith-based” agencies—roared with laughter.

Welcome to Washington and the tenth annual African refugee conference!

Currently, less than one half of one percent of the world’s officially recognized refugees have a chance at resettlement in the West.  Even during times of relatively low refugee admission rates, such as the last three years, the United States resettled more than the rest of the entire developed world combined.  About 70,000 refugees will arrive in 2005.  Roughly another 70,000 will come in as asylum-seekers and “Cuban/Haitian entrants.”  All Cubans and about one third of the non-Cubans will receive asylum, gaining all the rights and entitlements of refugees.  (Most of those whose asylum bids fail will remain in the country anyway.)

It is at Washington, D.C., conferences such as this that NGO’s with federal and state contracts learn about the latest government programs for refugees and asylum seekers.  The audience of contracting agencies, which are now mostly staffed and increasingly owned and operated by recent immigrants, has also come to provide ideas for future directions of the U.S. refugee program and to press for more and larger programs.

Speaking for the U.S. government were officials from the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security—principal deputy assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, office directors, and the like (even someone with the title “Special Advisor to the President, Crisis Group”).  U.N. officials, parliamentarians, and embassy staffers from Kenya, Zambia, and Uganda; employees of Oxfam and Amnesty International; and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations also had presentations.

Among the audience and presenters were social workers and immigration lawyers with services to sell, such as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.  The committee recently renamed itself Human Rights First.  No doubt, market research indicated the term lawyer was getting in the way of the organization’s message.

One can still get a lot of mileage out of the terms refugee and asylum seeker, however.  Apparently, little more than letterhead is needed to start bringing in federal dollars as long as the name on the letterhead contains the word refugee.  An NGO nation has grown up around refugee resettlement to the United States.  Like a shallow-rooted plant, it flourishes and spreads quickly, replacing organic civic society.  It would wither and die without continual government aid, but it is particularly well suited to ensure continuance of that government aid and its own survival.

Many American cities have Estonia Houses, Baltic Associations, Hungarian clubs, and other ethnic-based mutual-assistance organizations dating back to the era when sponsors were required to provide housing and jobs for incoming refugees.  Then, refugees were legally barred from accessing any form of public assistance.  Today, of course, refugees, successful asylum-seekers, “Cuban/Haitian entrants,” victims of trafficking, unaccompanied minors, and immigrants with “violence against women” status are immediately eligible for all sorts of public assistance as well as a host of special programs ranging from federal “micro loans” to in-kind donations which generate profits for the NGO’s that give them away.

Today, if someone were to found an Estonia House, he would first come to Washington and register as an ethnic community-based organization.  (The government term is ethnic CBO.)  He would then attend conferences such as this to learn how to tap into poverty programs and land federal contracts providing services for the “underserved.”

At previous conferences, one of the topics was how to get tobacco settlement money.  (When not learning how to get “smoking cessation” grant money, conferees listened to speeches in which America was denounced for profiting from “global apartheid” and American immigration laws were likened to South African pass laws.)  This year, conferees learned that USDA money for “low-income minority farmers” is available to new arrivals.  There are grants from the Office of Crime Victims, money from “ownership society” initiatives such as Individual Development Accounts, and even EPA grants to allow refugee seniors to carry out “public education” about the environment.  As one presenter counseled: Read the Federal Register every day, and be the first to hear about the latest grant!  I wonder if the authors of federal grant programs realize how many of their programs’ beneficiaries have yet to arrive in the United States?

Chris Gersten, principal deputy assistant secretary for children and families in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stated that the federal government “gave away millions” to organizations like those at the conference for services to “trafficking victims”—but couldn’t find the victims.  “Now we are giving out money to publicize the program and find the victims,” he announced.  He could have added that broadly written regulations implementing the “Trafficking and Violence Protection Act” have made it easier to find victims.  In fact, there is hardly a distinction between a smuggled illegal alien and a “trafficked” illegal alien.

We learn that “marriage money,” flowing to the refugee industry since the Clinton administration, just got better under President Bush’s latest marriage initiative.  A breakout session was devoted to getting grant money for marriages, an institution the new arrivals are helping to redefine.  At an earlier federal-contractor meeting I attended, a State Department official uncharacteristically reached the point of exasperation when told that America was not committed to diversity because it outlawed polygamy.  The official had the temerity to remind her listeners, who had loudly cheered the antidiversity charge, that they had moved to the West, and the West works differently from the countries they voluntarily left behind.

Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement Director Nguyen Van Hanh, himself a refugee, stated at this year’s conference that U.S. laws protecting women are undermining refugee marriages.  But then, there are advantages in qualifying for “marriage initiative” money.  Conceding that ethnic tensions are rising where refugees are settling, the ORR director promised more money for “public education” and more “faith-based initiative” money to neighborhood churches so that they will go along willingly with the resettlement of refugees in their neighborhoods.

Ironically, many of the organizations attending conferences such as this achieved their full growth during the mid-90’s when the states were looking for ways to get immigrants, who had been cut from some federal welfare programs by the 1996 welfare-reform law, back into the system.  It turns out that citizenship is the quickest and most cost-effective tool of the multifaceted and still ongoing campaign known as “fix ‘96.”  The New Jersey Citizenship Campaign is typical of these government-initiated “grassroots” campaigns, described in a May 2005 National Conference of State Legislatures report as a

collaborative partnership of [20] community-based organizations and state and federal agencies. . . . The campaign originally targeted [for citizenship] low-income, elderly and disabled lawful permanent residents and those eligible for New Jersey’s State Food Stamp Program.

Most of the CBO’s are still around, now lobbying for “reform of federal immigration law” and looking for the “underserved” and ways to serve them.

The taxpayer can rest assured that tax dollars for ethnic CBO’s are not supporting ethnic political causes; government regulations carefully channel the stream of grant money with such self-revelatory dictates as

Funds will not be awarded to applicants for the purpose of engaging in activities of a distinctly political nature, activities designed exclusively to promote the preservation of a specific cultural heritage, or activities with an international objective (i.e., activities related to events in the refugees’ country of origin).

For those who worry that the money that pours into the NGO’s will be used to lobby for . . . well . . . more money for the NGO’s comes this not-so-reassuring assurance from the largest NGO in the refugee-resettlement business, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops:

USCCB assures by documented certification to any federal funding agency with which we have contractual relationships that no federal appropriated funds will be paid to staff for influencing or attempting to influence the making of any Federal grant to include extensions, continuations, renewals, amendments or modification of any Federal contract, grant, loan or cooperative agreement.  Therefore, it is important that diocesan administrators understand that salary or wages paid for time spent advocating with congressional representatives for federal appropriations to support refugee admissions and domestic services should be charged to diocesan funding sources other than those awarded from federal grants, including funds passed through by USCCB, i.e., R&P, Cuban/Haitian, Match Grant, INS children’s programs or any other government-supported refugee programs and services.

In other words, you can’t take money from, say, the Healthy Marriage Initiative and use it to lobby Congress for more and larger grant programs.  But why would you need to use government money for lobbying?  That’s what the Sunday collection is for.  With the government funding your social vision, congregational donations—i.e., “diocesan funding sources other than those awarded from federal grants”—can be and are used to lobby for more government programs.

In all the shouting and fury over the Bush administration’s 2006 budget cuts, refugee-related budgetary increases have received little notice.  The State Department’s refugee-admissions budget is up by 17 percent, and the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services refugee programs is up by 14 percent.

As grant-getting entities, the ethnic CBO’s, voluntary agencies, and mutual-assistance associations involved in refugee resettlement are probably the largest unexamined federal contracting business in the United States.  Don’t expect an examination of this program anytime soon, however.  The Bush administration sees nothing but good things coming from it: good publicity from a befogged media, a boon for its faith-based domestic constituents, and an international goodwill initiative all rolled into one package—plus, new brigades for the “reserve army of the unemployed” so necessary to the growing low-wage, no-benefits, temp-worker economy.

The Bush administration is advocating for ever-higher numbers of refugee admissions, and a recent report commissioned by the State Department (“The United States Refugee Admissions Program: Reforms for a New Era of Refugee Resettlement,” by David Martin) calls for a “sense of mission about adding one or two new [refugee] groups to the [U.S. refugee] pipeline development process each month” (emphasis added).

Under this proposal, refugee contractors, whose pay is directly tied to the number of refugees admitted, will be given more say in policy questions such as who gains the coveted refugee designation.

It will be interesting to see the recommendations of my jolly tablemates.