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New Immigration Restrictions Hurting US Rural Economies, Refugees - 2002-07-15

September 11 brought many changes to the United States, including a new awareness of immigration. After the terrorist attacks, President Bush approved admission for 70,000 refugees by September of this year. To date, only 11,000 have made it to the country, due in large part to increased security concerns. The slowdown has taken a toll on Fargo, North Dakota, a popular destination for refugees. At a time when the northern state is struggling to maintain its population, refugees have been a welcomed addition.

Matiop Alith arrived in Fargo four years ago, from the Sudan. Before that, the former Olympic athlete had spent years in refugee camps. Now in his 40s, he has not seen his mother in 21 years. He's never met his younger sisters and brother. Mister Alith was scheduled to be reunited with his family last year, on September 17. His family's visit to the United States was cancelled after the terrorist attacks. Ten months later, it's hard for Mister Alith to understand why his family still has not been allowed into the country, especially since they have passed security checks.

"My mom, she's just innocent," he said. "She doesn't go to school, she doesn't know about [terrorists], so why? Why there is no [response] from those who are responsible for bringing the country."

Mister Alith's family is waiting in a Sudanese refugee camp, and he worries about their safety. Their situation is not unique - thousands of asylum-seekers are stranded in a bureaucratic limbo. Not only all those people who had been secured to come, but all the people before that hadn't been processed were just pushed back further.

Kathy Thoreson directs the Center for New Americans in Fargo. She says no refugees have been linked to the September terrorist attacks, and that as a group, they present a low security risk. Refugees seeking asylum in the United States must go through extensive background checks by authorities. Miz Thoreson says after September 11, new security measures were put in place, and now all those security checks are being repeated.

"Meaning the finger prints," Ms. Thoreson says, "the background checks, all the security checks that the United States does in the other countries prior to coming and then to re-do certain things of those after they get here."

Ms. Thoreson says it's frustrating for everyone involved because the process takes so long. Only 27 refugees have come to Fargo since October - a 90 percent decline from the same period a year ago. She says, for the thousands of people waiting in refugee camps for a chance to leave, it's a desperate situation. "Every day that passes is for them is not a chance for normalcy, health, getting on with their life, everything is on hold," she says.

Refugee advocates have enlisted the help of North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy. He and other members of the state's congressional delegation wrote to President Bush, pointing out that refugees are a vital part of their state's economic development.

"We have some significant work force issues in the growth areas of our state," Mr. Pomeroy commented, "and that's why business leaders have talked to me about just how important it is we have new Americans as a component of growing the work force necessary." Congressman Pomeroy says he's optimistic the number of refugees seeking asylum in the United States will increase. He says the Bush administration is trying to expedite the process, but security remains the primary concern.

Matiop Alith believes he will be reunited with his family one day. He says when that happens, he has a video tape he wants to show them. It's news coverage of the events of September 11. He hopes in some way it can explain why their reunion was delayed for so long.