In the crowded, makeshift offices of the U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs, the mood has grown increasingly grim over the last two months. Staff members, often working late into the night, have taken on the look of exhausted soldiers marching toward a battle they know they won't win.
"The problem is already overwhelming us," said one State Department veteran of Indochina. "We could hardly cope if the refugee flow stopped tomorrow. It's a hemorrhage and we just keep coming up with more Band-aids."
Solutions seem distant, barely practicable. There is the sense, too, that while the United States has led the world in its humanitarian efforts on the refugees' behalf, its response to the crisis has fallen steadily behind the ever-worsening realities.
Efforts to keep up have been bogged down in the process of political second-guessing, and in the ponderous mechanics for budgeting, authorizing and appropriating millions of dollars - trials that affect any government program, but seem cruelly slow in the midst of this emergency.
"By the time we get a decision the whole situation has gotten out ahead of us again and the funding is obsolete," said one Justice Department official concerned with the problem. " i think everybody is just very frustrated and just doesn't know what to do. Just nothing's working."
The president's appointment in March of former senator Dick Clark of Iowa, as U.S. coordinator has alleviated some of the interagency feuding and fumbling that once plagued refugee processing and resettlement. An administration bill now before Congress would streamline what has for 30 years been an erratic, ad hoc approach to worldwide refugee problems.
But both Congress and the White House have been reluctant to back any sudden substantive moves to meet the current crisis.
"It was only after much kicking and screaming," according to one member of Clark's staff, that the president was persuaded in late March and early April to raise the quota of Indochinese refugees to 7,000 a month through September, and to provide funds for the processing.
At the time there already were more than 200,000 refugees in the camps and the flow out of Vietnam was rising dramatically. Officials of both the State and Justice departments said at the time, however, that Carter and his staff left them with the "distinct impression" that he might decide to cut back on the numbers again in October.
The increase was supposed to have been a major step to reduce pressures on receiving countries in Southeast Asia and to lead an international increase in resettlement quotas. It has done neither, and in fact has yet to be implemented. The money for the new quota remains tied up in Congress. The House Appropriations Committee refused to separate it from other supplemental appropriations bills so that it could pass more quickly.
As a result, since April the U.s. refugee program has, instead of growing, been on the verge of grinding to a halt for lack of money.
Instead of 7,000 Indochinese refugees coming into the United States last month, there were fewer than 4,600. So far in June there have been fewer than 2,000. The State Department hopes to make up those numbers by the end of the summer - if the supplemental appropriation, which comes before the Senate tomorrow, passes.
Though White House staffers say the president "has forced on this issue" and has been "very concerned" about the refugee crisis for months, State and Justice Department officials privately accused Carter of failing to come to grips with the situation.
"The White House is the problem," said one highly placed State Department official last week. The refugee issue "has never yet seized the president's interests and concern.... There has been no reaching out by the president. Even Gerald Ford would have been out front on this issue."
A Justice Department official who deals regularly with immigration and refugee problems was more cynical, suggesting policital motives behind the reluctance of the president, his Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council to come to grips with the problem.
"The budget people are under a lot of pressure not to let the budget go up. Refugees are a discretionary item. It's much easier to cut on refugees than on highways," the official said. "As far as the NSC is concerned, "people" sorts of problems don't rank high in the foreign policy reward system or pecking order.
"It would be one thing if we were being niggardly, but we are already doing a lot. The words from the president are very much that we should not be the end-all on this - that we should not take all the refugees. We have problems of unemployment, there are problems of the black and ethnic votes - groups that are important to the president's constituency, and he already has problems with them on other fronts."
Black and Hispanic leaders, while voicing humanitarian concern for the plight of the Indochinese, often have been less than enthusiastic at the prospect of allowing thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands more into the United States.
"It's a competitive thing," said Carmela Lacayo, vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "It creates a jealousy within us that is unhealthy. But at the same time it seems unavoidable. Tell me, is it prejudicial for a Hispanic to say: "Hey, I want to take care of my own before we abundantly start taking care of the Indochinese?"
Norman Hill, executive director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a New York-based civil rights group, strongly objected to the notion that blacks oppose admitting more Indochinese.
"We understand what it means to be pushed aside and forgotten," Hill said and he called for admission of at least 100,000 Indochinese refugees over the next year.
But another official in a major civil rights organization said publicly, "Our concern about their [the refugees"] well-being and safety will be continued," then remarked privately, "But we don't need any more of these people coming in here. We're already worried about all of those Mexicans coming in illegally and taking jobs."
Said one member of Clark's staff: "There are still a whole lot of people out there who think we've brought in too many refugees already. Unless there's a real crisis, nobody wants to take on refugees. When it comes right down to it, it's a straight humanitarian issue, and we all know how far humanitarian issues get you."
Costs are high and growing. Every refugee brought to the United States costs the taxpayers, at least initially, more than $1,000. Other monies are spent helping maintain the United Nations' refugee camps in Southeast Asia. The State Department expects to spend, altogether, about $107 million this year, and as much as $500 million next year, on Southeast Asian refugees.
Past experience has shown that the vast majority of Indochinese adapt quickly to American society and soon become substantial taxpayers themselves. According to Department of Health, Education and Welfare statistics, about 94 percent of the heads of refugee households are employed.
But officials point out that many of the refugees now seeking resettlement are less educated and cosmopolitan than those who came to the United States in 1975. Large numbers are illiterate even in their own language, and will have more trouble adapting.
U.S. officials, including Clark, regularly say as well that the United States no longer bears any special direct relationship or obligation to the majority of refugees now coming out of Vietnam.
But as tens of thousands of people face imminent death in Southeast Asia, support in Congress has finally begun to grow for some sort of decisive action. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has long been concerned with the issue, is at the fore, but scores of other members of Congress, from the most liberal to some of the most conservative, have joined in.
Carter met with Clark Friday and received a full briefing on the situation, but State Department officials believe Carter will wait until he can be assured of more international cooperation before raising the U.S. quota, probably to about 10,000 a month.
"In the sense of finally getting something done," said one State Department official, "we may benefit from a further deterioration of the situation. Ther may be very little choice for Jimmy Carter. He may be so boxed in that there's no other path for him to take.... Some voice on high will just say, "Jimmy, it's time to do something." "