Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark

President Obama’s proposed refugee admissions for FY2017, which he submitted to Congress for approval, requests that refugee admissions be increased 30 percent over FY2016, from 85,000 to 110,000. The requested budget to administer the program in FY2017 is $1.54 billion, which only includes the costs of resettlement, not the cost of benefits refugees receive after they come to the United States. 

The report goes into great detail about why the White House believes that the number should be raised, but it spends no time discussing how the vetting process can be improved to screen out national security risks, or how refugees and displaced persons can be best helped by providing resources to protect them in regions closest to their homes.

By definition, the resettlement process is permanent, meaning resettled refugees become permanent residents of the United States. They receive immediate work authorization, become immediately eligible for public assistance, can apply for a green card one year after arrival, and apply for citizenship after five years (p. 4). For these reasons, it is essential that the refugee program is operated in such a way that individual refugees resettled in the United States are adequately vetted, and the interests of the American people are always the first priority. President Obama’s proposal fails on both accounts.

The report acknowledges that the United States accepts most resettled refugees. In FY2015, it was 64 percent (p. 3.) Going back to 2009, it is 70 percent of total refugees resettled. Furthermore, more than 90 percent of all refugees resettled end up either in the United States, Canada, or Australia (p. 2) The stated goal of the Obama Administration is to ensure that the United States accepts “at least 50 percent of all refugees referred by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees],” though there is no explanation as to why the United States should be responsible for half of all refugees resettled through UN auspices (p. 3).

The proposal mentions in passing that the White House hopes more countries will accept refugees, and in greater numbers, but it proposes no real solution for how to accomplish that end; such as tying the acceptance of refugees to the receipt of U.S. foreign aid.

The money that the United States will spend on refugee resettlement could be put to better use securing safe zones in the regions where most displaced persons are being housed, especially for the protection of groups who have been targeted in established UN refugee camps and have no access to the refugee processing system.

The UN has stated that the lack of funding for refugee camps in the Middle East is the primary reason that Europe has seen an influx of migrants seeking asylum there. Often neglected in the debate over how to handle the refugee crisis is the fact that countries such as Lebanon and Jordan are in urgent need of funding for the temporary housing of refugees there who want to eventually return to their homelands.

Most displaced persons do wish to return to their homes, which is why the UN recommends the temporary housing of refugees as a better option than permanent resettlement. President Obama’s proposal to Congress recognizes that the “vast majority” of refugees would like to return home (p. iv), but, even as he acknowledges the stated goal of most refugees, he propose nothing to assist them in achieving it.

It isn’t that the United States shouldn’t accept refugees, it’s that our government should acknowledge that the best way to help them is to fund safe zones in the regions in which most refugees are located. Ninety-nine percent of refuges will never be resettled, so the focus should be on helping them, instead of the few who have the extraordinary privilege of making it to the United States. One estimate found that for every one Middle Eastern refugee who comes to the United States, twelve refugees remaining in that region could be helped.

The main challenge with admitting refugees is ensuring their identity and vetting them for security risks. President Obama states that “Refugees…are subject to the highest level of security checks for any traveler to the United States” (p v.). This statement is in-line with such claims as “the border is more secure than ever.” To say that refugee vetting is more thorough than the normal admissions process is a far cry from saying that it is adequate to the task at hand.

While the Obama Administration, with the approval of the Republican Congress, has put an emphasis on bringing in more refugees from Syria (over 11,000 were admitted over the past year), it has ignored the Director of the FBI, the Director of National Intelligence, and the former Secretary of DHS, all of whom have told Congress that it is impossible to adequately vet refugees from Syria.

Even the most dedicated and thorough government official cannot screen a potential refugee if there is no available information with which to do so. Making the job even more difficult is the Obama Administration placing arbitrary quotas on annual admissions, which the screeners are tasked with fulfilling. This so-called “surge” in processing, in the words of the Obama White House, has “decreased overall processing time” (p. ii). Speed must not be the goal when vetting refugees.

This ramped-up effort, however, is part of a larger initiative in which the United States is “co-locating and surging staff” in foreign countries to, in effect, more readily identify and process potential refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America. The latter effort has coincided with an influx of Central Americans into the United States claiming refugee status, even as evidence demonstrates that very few have legitimate claims, and by international law, Central Americans who are claiming asylum must do so in the first foreign country they enter, not wait until they get to the United States. 

The report from the White House makes it clear that it’s priority is not the proper vetting for refugees. Instead it seeks various ways to circumvent existing laws and protocols in order to boost the numbers. The most egregious example is that using “discretionary Secretarial authority,” DHS has given exemptions, even while acknowledging the legal statute that prohibits it from doing so, to almost 15,000 individuals who, in the view of DHS, “provided insignificant or ‘certain limited’ material support…to terrorist organizations,”  (pp. 16-17)

Another way of doing this is under the guise of “family reunification;” allowing those in the United States who are “lawfully present” (including those who came illegally and have received Temporary Protected Status) to bring family members to the United States from Central America without them having to meet the standard for admission as refugees.

The White House has even proposed an initiative to use the refugee program as another means of supplying low-cost labor to U.S. employers.

The refugee system must not be seen as simply another means to boost annual admissions. Refugee policy is not about allowing people move to the United States so they can seek a better life for themselves and their family. Rather, it is to provide sanctuary to those who are fleeing government persecution, or a government that allows them to be persecuted. This is what distinguishes refugees from immigrants who come to the United States willingly, and many with the expectation of becoming citizens. The circumstances under which refugees are resettled in this country makes assimilating them particularly challenging. The Obama Administration, in keeping with the failure of previous administrations, does very little on that front, aside from handing out a Welcome to the United States handbook (available in 12 languages), and offering a curriculum on “cultural orientation” (p. 19)

The task of providing for refugees is left up to non-governmental organizations [NGOs], who receive funding from the government based on how many refugees they agree to sponsor. These sponsorships consist of providing basic support for at least 30 days and some “cultural orientation,” potentially with the guidebook provided by the State Department. Because refugees are immediately eligible for federal benefits, one of the major roles NGOs provide is to assist refugees in signing up for welfare programs (pp. 20-23).

Despite NGO claims, coordination with receiving communities is minimal, which makes acculturation that much more difficult.

The numbers of refugees admitted every year to the United States is small compared to the overall number of foreigners who come as immigrants, guest workers, or illegal aliens. And the number of refugees who are resettled in the United States every year is dwarfed by the 65 million displaced persons worldwide who are need of assistance (p. ii) If President Obama truly believed the refugee situation was such a dire crisis, should he not focus public attention on the issue, instead of quietly submitting a budget request to Congress? And would he not request that Congress appropriate money to help fund the refugees who are being housed in temporary camps?

President Obama’s FY2017 refugee admissions proposal makes it clear that the Administration does not adequately grasp the severity of the refugee crisis, and has no serious plan to attempt to address it.

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Updated: Wed, Nov 2nd 2016 @ 9:05am EDT

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