A revision of U.S. refugee laws would widen the diversity of the refugee population admitted to this country without necessarily increasing the number of refugees, Carter administration officials said yesterday.
"Until now our refugee laws have hampered our ability to accommodate the demands for resettlement in the United States in anything but amakeshift way," said Dick Clark, a former U.S. senator who ahs been nominated by President Carter to become U.S. coordinator of refugee affairs.
Clark said the geographic and ideological criteria of current refugee laws are inherently discriminatory because "they exclude many refugees, particularly from the Western Hemisphere (Latin America) and Africa."
For example, he said only people fleeing communist governments or countries in the Middle East are classified as refugees under existing U.S. laws. The statutes ignore the plight of persons escaping persecution under right wing governments, or of those fleeing racism or civil war in Africa, he said.
"As a result, over the past 23 years we have repeatedly had to deny needy refugees," said Clark, one of four administration officials testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday on behalf of legislation designed to overhaul current U.S. refugee laws.
The legislation, which is expected to increase controversy over an already emotional issue, was fashioned by the administration in conjunction with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N. J.), chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-M. Y.), chairwoman of the House subcommittee on immigration, refugees and international law.
Kennedy, Rodino and Holtzman jointly introduced the bill Tuesday.
Expand the definition of "refugee" to include any person coutside of his or her country who is unwilling or unable to return to that country because of persecution or a wellfounded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."
Establish new rules and procedures designed to admit refugees to the United States on a more equitable and orderly basis.
Raise the ceiling for the "normal flow" of refugees to the United States from 17,400 to 50,000 annually.
Limit the U.S. attorney general's parole authority -- frequently used to admit large groups of refugees outside the courrent statutory ceiling -- to its intended use, the admission of individual refugees on an emergency basis.
The Judiciary Committee hearing-yesterday indicated that much of the opposition to the legislation probably will be generated by the proposals to expand the definition of "refugee" and to raise the "normal flow" ceiling.
But Clark said in response to panel questions that the legislation "clearly does not" encourage a massive increase in refugees to the United States. In fact, he said, there may be no increase at all.
"The president may also determine to admit fewer than 50,000 refugees in a given fiscal year -- letting the unused numbers lapse," Clarke said.