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Humanitarianism tempered with politics

Calculated Kindness, by Gil Loescher and John A. Scanlan. New York: The Free Press. 346 pp. $22.50. As a fellow student of United States immigration and refugee policy and an attender of many recent conferences on the subject, I had read -- and heard -- many parts of ``Calculated Kindness'' as it was being written.

From the start I felt that the authors - Gil Loescher, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, and John A. Scanlan, a professor of law at the University of Indiana's Law School - were about to succeed in doing what many had attempted but none had yet done: to write a comprehensive history and critical assessment of America's policies and practices regarding the admission and treatment of refugees since the end of World War II.

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Now, seeing their book in its final and carefully edited form, I am even more certain that my earlier predilection was justified. It is impressive in many ways.

Its terse title is most apt. As Loescher and Scanlan demonstrate, the history of US refugee policy has been marred by a tendency to temper humanitarian concerns with political considerations. This policy has meant favoring certain petitioners seeking asylum over others, with those fleeing communism consistently having the highest priority.

In three years of tireless investigation, the authors nearly exhausted the various sources available to make their case. They read all the relevant documents, surveyed the available literature, and traced the legal history from the first Displaced Persons Act in 1947, through the special enactments that permitted thousands of East Europeans and Cubans to enter this country in the 1950s and 1960s, to the rescue and resettlement of some 750,000 Indochinese after the fall of Saigon in 1975, to the most recent decisions regarding the treatment of ``de facto'' refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean.

They interviewed nearly 200 key figures involved in setting and carrying out refugee policies in the US and other countries: high government officials, heads of voluntary agencies, representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other international organizations, immigration lawyers, journalists, social workers, and leaders of refugee communities.

What was read in archives, learned from interviews, and observed in the field was then woven into a narrative that makes ``Calculated Kindness'' a fascinating story for laymen as well as a challenge to specialists and policymakers.

While pointing to the fact that America has been host to more than two million refugees since 1945 - a record unmatched anywhere in the world - Loescher and Scanlan's study clearly shows that, despite the fact that US law now recognizes that refugee status is to be accorded to those escaping categorical persecution from the right as well as the left, cold war sentiments are still a major factor in the determination of acceptability.

And, they point out, nowhere is the calculus of America's refugee politics more evident today than in this hemisphere. ``[The] US has grown accustomed to regarding only the opponents of Communism as deserving of rescue. In the current restrictionist era, that belief has translated into an asylum policy totally at variance with the spirit of America's refugee law, and totally alien to the belief that refugees are desperate people, not pawns in a global game of chess with the Soviet Union.''

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