Interviews: In Search of a Durable Solution

Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA)

June 2007

POV: How has the situation changed for refugees coming to the United States since September 11th? Are there any new factors or approaches to refugee resettlement that relate to refugees from Sudan, Sierra Leone and Somalia specifically -- or Africa generally?

Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA) Congressman Tom Lantos: The horrific attacks of 9/11 prompted Congress to make a thorough review of the legal mechanisms that were meant to keep this country safe, including the immigration system. Our shock after the attack was compounded months later when we learned that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had just sent visa renewals to some of the terrorists, revealing an amazing lack of integration of agencies charged with homeland security and immigration issues.

To fix these matters, Congress passed major pieces of legislation, such as the Patriot Act, that had wide and, to a degree, unforeseen consequences for refugees. Some of the most detrimental provisions in this package of new laws are referred to as the "material support provisions." These provisions were designed to ensure that people who participated in or supported terrorist activities could not enter or immigrate to the United States. However, the overbroad scope and rigidity of these measures excluded many worthy individuals from being resettled in the United States -- most notably, tens of thousands of refugees. This happened because individual circumstances are not considered in the adjudication of these cases, and all too many people are lumped into the category of "terrorist supporters," even if their alleged material support is based on extortion, kidnapping or other forms of coercion they suffered from paramilitary or rebel groups. The U.S. Congress will hopefully be able to permanently change these hastily drafted provisions to continue the proud role the United States has played throughout its history in providing protection and a safe haven for some of the world's most vulnerable populations, refugees and asylum-seekers.

In addition, the administration has toughened its security screening processes on almost all immigration and visa admissions and conducted an extensive fraud review of the refugee program, eliminating or reconciling applications with evidence of fraud and enacting new anti-fraud measures to prevent fraud in future applications. Most notably, the administration instituted the NSEERS screening process which required boys and men between the ages of 15 and 55 who were from certain identified countries to undergo an additional, more extensive security screen than that required for other applicants. Sudan and Somalia remain on that list; however, Sierra Leone is not one of the countries from which applicants must undergo this additional examination.

POV: As the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a Holocaust survivor originally from Hungary and a representative from the Bay Area, what is your particular interest in refugee issues?

Lantos: World War II made refugees of many with whom I was close -- including the girl who would later become my wife -- and this early experience left an indelible impression on me. I was fortunate to come to the United States on a scholarship in the early days of the post-war Soviet occupation of my country. Ever since then, I have been involved in helping victims of state repression, and it has been gratifying to be able to do so from my position in Congress -- both with legislation and by shining a light on the plight of refugees through the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and my work on the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Today the world's refugees have one central commonality -- they are fleeing persecution. Either they have a well-founded fear of persecution at home on account of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a social group, or they are survivors fleeing actual events of persecution on account of one of these factors. They are the most vulnerable of the millions of vulnerable people in the world. They seek refugee status because they have no choice but to seek that designation so that they and their families may survive.

POV: What do you see as the goal of American refugee policy? Are there specific changes that you would like to see implemented to improve American policy on this issue?

Lantos: Historically speaking, America was always a safe haven for people who had to leave their countries behind for various reasons. I am proud that the United States accepts about half of the world's refugees who resettle through the UN system. Our first goal should be to fulfill the promise contained in the immortal words of Emma Lazarus, engraved in the pedestal of America's most famous monument, the Statute of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" These words should be our guidance, and we need to implement them through a flexible, intelligent refugee policy which takes into account constantly shifting humanitarian needs around the world to make them a reality. This would include a permanent change of the provisions relating to material support and should be an urgent priority for us in Congress.

Furthermore, we need to increase our numbers of refugee admissions from around the world. There are approximately 12 million refugees in the world right now, and millions more internally displaced people. The U.S. has agreed to accept about 70,000 refugees for resettlement each year in the post-9/11 environment, yet every year we fail to fill all of these openings. Tens of thousands remain in refugee camps around the world because we fail to process them for admission here. The administration needs to recommit to resettling the full number of refugees the president determines we can admit each year. We especially need to give heightened and immediate attention to providing assistance to and resettlement of refugees from North Korea, Sudan and, given that we have a special obligation to them, Iraq.

I have a lifelong commitment to helping refugees and will continue to work on their behalf to keep the door open for the opportunity to start a new life, and to ensure that the U.S. refugee program is as strong as it can be.

POV: You are the founding co-chairman of the Human Rights Caucus. What does this group do? Can you tell us about the work that you and the Caucus have been involved with, particularly in regard to issues and conflicts in Africa?

Lantos: Under the dedicated guidance of my wife, Annette, and with my wholehearted support, the caucus has involved itself in a great variety of issues concerning people all over the globe. We struggle for the rights of Christians to practice their faith in Saudi Arabia and Sudan; we fight for Tibetans to be able to retain their culture and religion in Tibet; we advocate for the rootless, often-despised Roma of Europe. Our activities on African issues have been wide-ranging, but they all seem to have a common root -- clashes between diverse armed groups and their effect on the civilian population. Of late, we have focused on the persecution of the people in the Darfur region of Sudan and the use of child soldiers by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. But we have also focused on incremental developments toward a more peaceful and stable Africa, where there have been free and fair elections and successful development programs.

POV: You were arrested last year in a protest on the part of the people of Darfur in front of the embassy of Sudan. Do you think the United States is doing enough to stop the massacre in Darfur? Are you satisfied with the current U.S. policy in Sudan or are there changes to U.S. policy that you advocate?

Lantos: Ever since the Holocaust, many in our society have routinely pledged "never again." But here we are, in a different time, in a different place, but with motives and brutality no less sinister. Time and again, recalling my own experience as a genocide survivor, I have called on the U.S. government and the United Nations to intervene. There is still much more to be done to stop the Darfur genocide.

Those of us who have been in the forefront of this issue worry that the Sudanese government simply wants to complete the horrific job of eliminating the minority there. An unpublished UN report alleges the Sudanese government is delivering arms and military equipment to its murderous minions in Darfur. Just as disturbing is the claim that they are painting their own military airplanes white to disguise them as UN or African Union aircraft. There is proof that at least one plane had the letters "U.N." painted on it to complete the deception. All of these insidious actions are in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The Sudanese should and will be held to account. I propose a no-fly zone that would prohibit any Sudanese military planes from taking to the air. If they violate this provision, we need to destroy their air force.

Recently the Sudanese government agreed to let a 3,000-person United Nations peacekeeping force join the African Union troops who are already there. It made the decision under pressure and only after months of unnecessary backtracking and delay. But the brutal Sudanese government has resisted the efforts of the United Nations to send some 20,000 peacekeepers to Darfur. I have no doubt that they will continue to procrastinate. Let me be clear: The difference between a small force and a substantial deployment is not merely a sticking point. It is absolutely essential.

It is essential to stopping the Arab militias from continuing to carry out the government's dirty deeds. It is essential to clearing the path for crucial food and water and health supplies to reach the desperate refugee camps. And it is essential because injustice is only really addressed when it is obliterated, not when it is slowed to a painful trickle of displacement, harassment and disrupted lives. We must have that bigger UN force in Sudan without any additional delay.

And finally, the United States needs to tighten its sanctions law so that Sudan's top leaders get the message and are deprived of the means to continue the genocide. I am a co-sponsor of the Darfur Accountability and Divestment Act (H.R. 180). This legislation requires the Securities and Exchange Commission to identify companies that conduct business operations in Sudan and prohibits United States government contracts with such companies. By passing this legislation, Congress will make a clear statement on behalf of the American people that we no longer will tolerate profit-making from genocide -- not in our names or with our dollars.

POV: Taking Action: How can PBS viewers help African refugees (or other refugees) in their communities? Are there particular organizations that you would recommend people get involved with (either through volunteering or contributing funds) in order to help refugees in the United States?

Lantos: African refugees are like other refugees who come from traumatizing humanitarian situations. They often need assistance with resettlement, cultural and social counseling, employment, training and access to local support services. In many communities, churches and mosques are available to assist with social and economic resettlement issues.

Also, many refugees from previous crises have established communities in cities across the United States and serve as a tremendous resource for new refugees. Notably, Ethiopian, Liberian, Sierra Leonean, Nigerian, Sudanese, Somali and other groups have well established social networks in cities like Atlanta, Houston, Baltimore, San Francisco and many others.

If a viewer wants to assist with African refugee resettlement, there are seven primary organizations that do the complicated work to resettle and support newly arrived refugees as they begin their new lives in the U.S. They are: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Ethiopian Community Development Center, International Rescue Committee and World Relief.

These organizations use and seek local volunteers to help prepare refugees for employment, cultural orientation, mentoring and other support services for families and individuals. I strongly encourage our citizens to volunteer with any of these organizations to assist the good work they are doing.

In addition, while the United States provides assistance to provide protection, food, shelter and other goods and services to refugees around the world, refugees in camps continue to live in desperately poor conditions in most places, especially Darfurian refugees in Chad and internally displaced people in Darfur. There are many UN agencies, American nonprofit humanitarian organizations and other international organizations that form a patchwork of relief that keeps refugees alive in South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. If you would like to help refugees, consider making donations to organizations such as these that provide the clothes on their backs, the rice in their bellies and the medicines that keep children alive in desperate conditions: the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross, UNHCR -- the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF and Catholic Relief Services.

Congressman Tom Lantos has represented California's 12th District since 1981; he is currently serving his 14th term in the House of Representatives. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley and was an economics professor prior to his service in Congress. Congressman Lantos is the co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and is the only holocaust survivor ever to have served in Congress.

Other 2007 Updates:
Learn more about the International Rescue Committee in our interview with Bob Montgomery, who coordinates activity in their San Diego office.
Find out what António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has to say about their current priorities.
Hear from Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren on American refugee policy