The District's Office of Refugee Resettlement spends more than$2 million a year in federal funds to help about 500 refugees, mostly from Indochina and Ethiopia, find jobs, housing and health services.
The office is prohibited, however, from helping the thousands of illegal immigrants who are streaming into the city each year from war-torn countries in Central America, because the U.S. government does not consider them refugees.
"My office would not exist if it weren't for federal funds," said Wallace W. Lumpkin, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. "I can have all the sympathy as an individual, but I cannot use my funds here to help undocumented refugees."
Lumpkin added: "We assist anyone who the federal government designates as a refugee, or who has refugee status. If they come from El Salvador, chances are they don't have that [refugee status] at all."
The federal government's definition of a refugee is one who flees his or her homeland out of fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
The government has set quotas on the number of refugees who may enter the U.S. legally each year: about 50,000 from Indochina, 19,000 from Eastern European countries and 3,500 from Africa, according to Lumpkin.
The number of legal refugees entering the United States has been dropping in recent years and that decline is reflected in the decreasing number of new arrivals served by the District's refugee office.
Meanwhile, the number of illegal "refugees" in the city, mostly from El Salvador, has been increasing and is estimated to range from 50,000 to 80,000 people, according to federal and local agencies.
"Basically, there is nobody serving [the illegal refugees] and they are frightened to use what services there are," said the Rev. Harold Bradley, head of Georgetown University's Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance.
"The refugees that ORR is serving are the refugees that it is to the political advantage of the United States to serve," he said. "We're taking care of those refugees for foreign policy reasons, and that's why you have the State Department involved in resettling those people."
About 95 percent of the legal refugees who come to the District seek assistance from the refugee office, Lumpkin said. They are brought here from refugee camps by volunteer agencies under contract with the State Department. Most speak no English and many are illiterate in their own languages, he said.
These refugees immediately are eligible to receive welfare payments for up to 18 months, plus food stamps, Medicaid and job training.
Many of these refugees are helped by the D.C. Refugee Service Center, a project of the Associated Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. At the center, which is fully funded by the city, the refugees receive such help as job placement and employment counseling, English classes, and family and personal counseling.
Lumpkin and his two-member staff, who are part of the city's Department of Human Services, give most of the office's $2 million budget to private agencies such as the Refugee Service Center, which actually provide the services to the refugees.
Undocumented aliens are ineligible for any services that receive federal funding.
The Andromeda Hispano Mental Health Center, for example, receives a $30,000 annual grant from the refugee office to run a counseling program for Cuban refugees. None of that money goes to serve the Central Americans who make up about 75 percent of the center's clientele, said Dr. Ricardo Galbis, Andromeda's executive director.
"They [the illegal immigrants] are paranoid to begin with," said Galbis. "They feel unsure of themselves. They have no rights: no medical rights, no legal rights. [But] they work hard, they're very hard-working people.
"There is a need for more focus on the health needs of the Hispanic population. They're increasing geometrically. Whether they're legal or not, they're living here."
Kathy Schrader, director of the Refugee Service Center, said, "It's frustrating for us because we are caught in the middle and sometimes we have a job we can't fill but there's nothing we can do" because the center cannot offer the job to an illegal refugee. The center serves about 2,000 legal refugees a year, Schrader said.
She said that the number of new cases her center handles each year has dropped to about 360, almost half the number of persons the center helped in 1981, its first year of operation.
When illegal immigrants visit the center they are referred to one of the several other private social service agencies that help Hispanics.
"The numbers [of illegals] really are overwhelming the ability of the agencies to provide," said Grant Prillaman, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, which helps the illegal immigrants get jobs and learn English.
Other private agencies that receive funds from Lumpkin's office include the Ethiopian Community Center and the Indochinese Community Center.
"We offer a variety of services all geared toward one thing, to make that refugee self-sufficient as quickly as possible," Lumpkin said. "It's all geared to moving the refugees toward the way Americans live and mainstreaming them into society."