Poorly coordinated efforts to resettle new Indochinese refugees in this country have stranded many in ghetto-like housing and dead-end jobs or added them to the welfare rolls, according to a new high-level government report.
The massive resettlement effort, which sources estimate could cost up to $1 billion this year in federal, state and local funds, is failing in some cases to provide basic needs, such as English language training and health care. Further, the report found, the effort could be threatened by a rising tide of negative public opinon, generated by misconceptions that the refugees are getting more than their fair share.
President Carter's decision last summer to double the number of refugees being admitted to 14,000 a month will probably lead to further deterioration of the assistance programs offered, the Health, Education and Welfare Department report concludes.
The report's conclusions are based on hundreds of interviews with 500 of the 294,000 Indochinese refugees who have arrived since 1975. It found that 41 percent were on welfare, about 66 percent were unable to speak English, 28 percent have had no English language instruction, and about 33 percent of the families did not have a wage earner.
The report noted that the more recent refugees are less likely to speak English, have less education and poorer job skills than the refugees who came to this country between 1975 and 1978. Thus, the report said, a higher percentage of the new refugees are having trouble integrating into American society.
"It's a sobering report on the reality of the full social costs of refugee resettlement," said Roger Conner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform here. "People have bandied about figures as if Cambodian refugees who are illiterate are going to do as well as the Vietnamese bureaucrats who came here first."
The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, was ordered by then-HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano in May. The secretary announced the report was in the works during testimony before a House subcommittee holding bearings on the Refugee Act of 1979.
The bill, which is still before Congress, includes amendments that would largely centralize responsibility for refugee resettlement in HEW, Currently, HEW shares the responsibility with the State Department.
One Capitol Hill staff member said that "the timing and tone of the report make me a little suspicious that this is going to be used for the cause of shifting things over to HEW."
But a spokesman for HEW denied that the report was timed to coincide with the ongoing debate over the refugee bill.
The report takes aim primarily at the volunteer agencies that handle most of the local job of resettling the refugees.
While praising the volunteers and workers in the field for being "incredibly dedicated," the report concludes that the agencies they work for by and large "do not provide refugees with the vital services essential to self-sufficiency."
Specifically, the report states that:
Refugees are eager to study English, but few instructional programs are available to them;
Few refugees receive job training even though they have few, if any, labor skills that are marketable in the United states;
Twenty percent of the agencies have no bilingual staff members;
Only 45 percent of those refugees interviewed had received "some kind" of help or orientation on how to deal with the practical problems of living in their adopted country.
According to interviews with local refugee assistance workers, many of the report's findings are born out by their own experiences.
Jackie Bong Wright, with the Indochinese Refugee Social Services in Alexandria said that most of the refugees in her area live in poor housing and that some have had to lie about the size of their families in order to obtain any housing at all.
"(Local) housing codes say you can't have more than two children of the same sex in any bedroom," she said. "Some have five, six, even eight children and they could not possibly afford large houses or apartments. So they take what they can get."
She said many are on welfare "for a short time. The first months are the hardest because they have so much to do and learn. We think they need the time to learn English and not work because of what they have been through."
Eventually, she said, they leave the welfare rolls and become productive members of society.
The report noted that "most refugees use welfare briefly" and that two-thirds of the refugees have been on welfare at some time.
Shepard Lowman, director of the State Department's Office of Asian Refugees, said that, while he had not seen a copy of the report, he disagreed with its criticism of the voluntary agencies.
"Philosophically, there's a real question about how you go about resettlement," he said. "Many voluntary agencies believe the best way to successful resettlement is for the refugee to immediately take jobs and then schedule around those jobs English language study."
But the report noted that only 5 percent of those interviewed tried to study English because it was too hard to do so on a part-time basis.
"These reports are not designed to be necessarily statistically valid," said Bill Wise, assistant HEW secretary for public affairs, adding that HEW had already taken a number of steps to correct deficiencies on its part. "But our programs for the refugees."