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September 11
A Year Later

Center shuts its doors after 23 years

The last item Livia Farkas packed into a box when she retired in August as director of the Refugee Data Center in Lower Manhattan was a dated cartoon from The New Yorker magazine. Lady Liberty, torch held high, clutches a cell phone in her left hand while telling the caller: “Well, it all depends. Where are these huddled masses coming from?”

The Refugee Data Center is the virtual entrance point for all refugees arriving in the United States. Some 2.17 million refugee cases have been processed at the center since Farkas and a fledgling team of five “began to put the program together [in 1977] with our bare hands, forming our own systems in accordance with State Department policy,” she told NCR.

The center is operated under the fiscal and administrative supervision of the International Catholic Migration Commission. The Geneva, Switzerland-based organization serves as the Vatican’s humanitarian arm for refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons and currently in some 20 nations.

The director could not hide the sadness she felt at losing 33 staff Aug. 7, even though everyone working in the two-story office at Union Square has known for two years that the center would shut its doors this year. “The government wants it closer to the State Department, closer to State’s control desk,” Farkas said. Still “there are a lot of hard feelings.”

Although no date has been announced, the Refugee Data Center is expected to open later this year at a Roslyn, Va., facility where it will be run by Computer Science Corporation, a contractor to the federal government.

A dozen of Farkas’s employees had worked with her for 23 years; many more had been at the center for 10 to 15 years. Though none entered the country as a refugee, many were new immigrants from China, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Poland, Haiti and El Salvador.

In the early years the small staff entered refugee data manually on color-coded index cards. But by the late 1970s and early ’80s, the huge numbers of fleeing Vietnamese “boat people” necessitated more staff, larger facilities and the beginning of computerization of all refugee files.

Before a refugee can enter the United States, he or she must gain acceptance into the U.S. Refugee Program and win approval of the Immigration and Naturalization Services. Only then is biographical data sent to the center from the site where the applicant is being held. The center then creates a file that includes the applicant’s name, date of birth, sex, citizenship, language(s), occupation, religion and state of health. The file is cross-referenced to family members already in the United States.

No refugee can be resettled unless he or she has an assurance of sponsorship, Farkas said. For 23 years the center facilitated a meeting each Wednesday of the 10 voluntary agencies who determined which agency would resettle each case. Five of the agencies are faith-based.

Farkas pointed to a box of hundreds of letters dating to the post-Vietnam War period sent by American families who wanted to adopt a Vietnamese child even though “there were no boat kids up for adoption.” She also recalled the special needs of some refugees of that era, such as the 38 Amerasians and Buddhist nuns housed in a pagoda who wanted to be resettled together. One Cambodian family would not part with its snake, because they believed it to be a reincarnation of a relative.

More recently a Eastern European family insisted that their prize-winning homing pigeons accompany them. And today it is not surprising for Russian refugees to demand that their wolfhounds emigrate with them. Usually the agencies working to resettle these refugees have managed to handle their requests.

Except for the current wave of Russians, Farkas said, “nobody else has arrived, because the FBI is putting everyone through further security checks and the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] is looking again at those approved before 9/11. We’re hearing horror stories about people losing their papers and fearing they’ll never be admitted,” she said.

“We’ll be lucky to get 30,000 this year,” she added, or half of the number the government has pledged to admit by Oct. 1.

U.S. refugee numbers began to decline even before the terrorist attacks. Last year 68,426 refugees arrived, the lowest number since 1987. In 2000, 72,515 came, compared with 85,006 in 1999. Both of these totals fell almost 10 percent short of the ceiling the government had set in each fiscal year.

Refugee totals had been slipping throughout the last two decades. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, refugees came largely from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia where nearly a decade of war produced a million refugees.

Besides worrying that refugees will continue to be detained for months, even years in deplorable conditions abroad, Farkas is concerned that the kinds of people working in refugee processing are more “technocrats” than “advocates” for the stateless and displaced of the world. “People today don’t get their hands dirty; they don’t roll up their shirtsleeves for refugees.”

That said, she had high praise for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious agencies that “go out of their way to see that each refugee gets a quality resettlement, quality housing, a Social Security card and a government I.D. card.”

In a quarter century of directing the center, Farkas said she took personal and professional satisfaction from her dealings with her staff and her service to refugees. “I opposed the Vietnam War, so to be able to do something to help besides marching in Washington was gratifying,” she said. “I don’t know whether the State Department knew this or whether they cared.”

Farkas does not expect refugee resettlements to rise while there are continuing terrorist alerts. But once new security systems and staffs are up and running, “things will move more quickly.” As for herself, she hopes to open a dog-walking service -- perhaps even chaperoning a Russian wolfhound or two on the sidewalks of New York.

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002