Longform

Unsettled

Page 4 of 8

But according to Corcoran, "The widows and their children are doing quite well. I think they're living in Minnesota now."

Indeed they are. They moved there, they say, because Minnesota is one of the best states in the country for people on welfare.

David Robinson, deputy director of refugee admissions for the State Department, says refugees are not supposed to end up as public charges. "If after a period of time, 90 days usually, they are on welfare, that is considered problematic," he says. "The agency is supposed to make sure that doesn't happen."

Throughout the spring and summer of 1996, Weiss was becoming more vocal at board meetings about what she believed were unacceptable results for the cases Refugee Services was resettling. Soon the entire board was grumbling. Some were asking Corcoran for clearer financial reports -- they say that he gave them the impression that there was no government money in the till -- while others were asking to review procedures for removing board members.

In April 1996, the Jelanis arrived in Dallas. This Somali family of six ran into trouble when the patriarch, Abubakr, lost his family's I-94s -- documents they needed to work in the United States. One son, Saed, had already found a job before the forms were lost, so he was able to continue his job at a 7-Eleven, working 18-hour days to support the family. But the rest waited. And waited. Weiss soon learned that six weeks had passed without the I-94s being replaced and began to complain.

Corcoran claimed that he had made an appointment for Abubakr Jelani to go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office, but that Abubakr refused to go.

That's not true, says Saed, speaking for his father, who still speaks little English. They wanted to go very badly, he says. "I wanted my father to be able to work so that I could study and our family could survive...But Chip never telephoned us."

Eventually the Jelanis decided to approach Catholic Charities for help, shortly after the government informed them they were losing their food-stamp benefits becaused Saed was employed. Catholic Charities sent a letter to INS and received a response in a week. It then passed that information to Refugee Services, which, because it was the Jelanis' sponsor, had to complete the paperwork.

But three months would pass before a Refugee Services worker took the family anywhere -- and then it was not to the INS, but to the welfare office.

When Weiss learned the family was on welfare, after Corcoran had told the Refugee Service board the problem had been handled, she took her concerns to board president Lance Rasbridge, who suggested she discuss the matter directly with Corcoran. In November 1996, Corcoran promised her he would personally take Abubakr Jelani to rectify the problem. Ten days later, Corcoran responded to her complaints in writing, claiming the process had hit several bureaucratic snags but that it would all be solved in a matter of days. When January 1997 rolled around and the family was still without their I-94s, she threatened to tattle to Church World Services.

On January 9, 1997, about seven months after Saed Jelani first reported his family's I-94s were lost, Weiss received a check for $325, the cost of replacing the family's forms, along with a memo from Corcoran: "I apologize for the seemingly endless series of problems we have faced in replacing these documents...Again my sincerest apologies for any delays. Thank you. Chip."

That same day, he provided her nearly a dozen pages of financial statements to appease her money concerns. But she immediately suspected that the numbers, which showed about $13,000 spent on the Jelanis and more than $10,000 on the Zebas, were fudged. It wasn't the fact that caseworker salaries were shown to be billed at $18 an hour, even though they were making about $9, or that the documents showed some $500 of reimbursement to the Jelani caseworker, who says he got only $300.

What caught her attention was a torn piece of paper with handwritten numbers stapled to the outside of the file that showed the chunk of government cash allocated for each refugee.

"I didn't say anything, really," Weiss says, "but I was fuming. That was the proof that board members had been lied to for years about there being no money from the government for refugees." Indeed, Corcoran wrote in a letter -- printed in the Weiss-written manual How to Resettle a Refugee Family: A guide for mosques and Muslim organizations -- "Unfortunately, the government does not pay the expenses for refugee resettlement...Therefore we cannot perform our task without the help of the community."

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Dan Michalski