Senate Hearings Will Study Iraqi Refugee Crisis

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) will hold a hearing this week on the growing crisis of Iraqi refugees and the U.S. responsibility to help them. Debbie Elliott speaks with Sen. Kennedy about the hearing and looks at the State Department's current refugee resettlement plans.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The plight of Iraqis like Aamer will be the subject of a hearing Tuesday by the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Refugees. Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is the chairman.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): There's a humanitarian crisis of extraordinary proportion and extraordinary need, particularly among those refugees that have been a part of friend of the American operation. They all have a target on them, and they are not going to be given some kind of a sanctuary; they are going to be marked for death.

ELLIOTT: Congress has authorized a program that grants special immigrant status to 50 military translators a year from Iraq and Afghanistan. Otherwise, Iraqi refugees must go through the State Department's resettlement program, which last year took in 202 Iraqis. Senator Kennedy believes the U.S. has a responsibility to do more.

Sen. KENNEDY: We've been willing to accept 200 Iraqi refugees. I don't think the United States can assume more than its capability, but I think we have to demonstrate a willingness for leadership, and that has not been the case.

ELLIOTT: Just how many Iraqi refugees the U.S. will take in this year is an open question.

Ms. ELLEN SAUERBREY (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration): We have really not established a number. The first thing that we need to do is to identify the most vulnerable, so that we have some idea of what the needs are.

ELLIOTT: Ellen Sauerbrey is the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. She says the Bush administration is in the early stages of getting refugee referrals from the U.N.

Ms. SAUERBREY: But it also depends on the resources that we get from Congress, and at this point, because Congress is operating under a continuing resolution, we don't know what our funding is going to be for how many refugees we will be able to admit worldwide.

ELLIOTT: Senator Kennedy says funding should not be an issue.

Sen. KENNEDY: We are spending $2 billion a week in Iraq, and it seems to me that we can find a way of settling a few thousand individuals who have devoted their lives to helping and assisting Americans and are now risking assassination and killing at the present time. We have a tight budget, but I don't think it's that tight.

ELLIOTT: But human rights groups are calling for the U.S. to take in more than a few thousand Iraqi refugees. They says of the 70,000 worldwide refugee admissions that the State Department has planned for, 20,000 slots remain unallocated and should be set aside for Iraqis.

Some critics suggest the administration doesn't have the political will to do that because allowing such a large refugee resettlement could look like an admission of failure in Iraq. The State Department's Ellen Sauerbrey disagrees. She says that humanitarian decisions are based on need. Still, don't expect to see large numbers of Iraqi refugees in the U.S. anytime soon.

Ms. SAUERBREY: It will probably be the next fiscal year before we would be able to have identified the needs and begun setting up a processing program and get people actually into the pipeline.

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