NO SINGLE national policy better expresses fundamental American values than the welcome the United States traditionally accords refugees. Not withstanding the high barriers to general immigration thrown up 50 years ago, Americans take pride in that specific influx. In just the last two decades, a million refugees have been admitted.
In the interested community, however, there is now a near consensus that refugee law and policy are dated and unwieldy, and that the flaws deny Americans the assurance that they are offering haven to refugees in a timely, orderly and humane way. The two key legislators, Rep. Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), have proposed reform legislation.
Both bills would release the definition of "refugee" from the ideological and geographical restrictions, favoring those fleeing communist rule and some Middle Easterners, written into law in the early 1950s. In the more uncertain political contex of the 1970s, when repression and turmoil may throw up refugees from practically any quarter, it makes sense to broaden the definition.
The bills differ somewhat in their numbers. They differ more substantially in how they allot policymaking power. Mr. Eilberg would end the discretionary "parole" authority extensively used by attorneys general and replace it with congressionally written guidelines. Mr. Kennedy would retain parole and give the executive branch flexible new authority to cope with unexpected refugee flows. The executive departments have been slow to coordinate their positions. Uncertainty over the future flow from Indochina is a particular complication.
We have scouted the terrain and we offer this impatient view: Too much is being made of the appearance of philosophical and political disagreement between the two approaches. Not enough is being made of the broad common interest in adjusting policy to international flux, correcting demonstrated hardships in American treatment of homeless people, and codifying what is best in the last 20 years of American refugee practice. There is no great battle crying to be fought over refugee policy reform. It merely requires that the administration get its act together and the legislators bargian out their differing emphases, so that the country can remain true to values it has long held dear.