On July 20, 2019, Politico reported that certain administration officials are proposing cuts in the number of refugees admitted to the United States, possibly to zero. That report has prompted a vociferous response from all of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee that raises once again questions concerning the cost-effectiveness and efficacy of the refugee program.
That outlet stated, according to three people who were familiar with discussions about this proposal, that:
During a key meeting of security officials on refugee admissions last week, [John Zadrozny,] a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] representative who is closely aligned with White House immigration adviser Stephen Miller suggested setting a cap at zero, the people said. Homeland Security Department [DHS] officials at the meeting later floated making the level anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000, according to one of the people.
As asides: I would note that this report is (at least) double hearsay, assuming that the three individuals cited were at the "key meeting". I am also not sure what the standard is to be "closely aligned" with Stephen Miller, but it is certainly intended to sound sinister. Perhaps it is a badge of honor in DC to have acolytes of someone in the White House (or to be one), but "guilt by association" does have a long and sordid history in the town. Finally, it would be interesting to know something about the three people who reported on the proposal to Politico, because they likely did not like the proposal—otherwise they would not have leaked the details. The testimony of self-interested parties, for example, is generally given less weight than that of dispassionate observers, at least in certain quarters.
As a direct point, however, as the article notes, Zadrozny is at USCIS, which is part of DHS, meaning that (assuming he did propose cutting refugee admissions to zero) he may have only been speaking for himself, given the fact that DHS "officials at the meeting later floated making the level anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000, according to one of the people." We, of course, do not know who those officials are either, or if Zadrozny himself was one of them.
Section 207 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides the statutory basis for the refugee program. Most importantly, section 207(a)(2) of the INA gives the president broad authority to set the number of refugees who will be admitted in the next fiscal year:
Except as provided in subsection [207(b) of the INA], the number of refugees who may be admitted under this section in any fiscal year after fiscal year 1982 shall be such number as the President determines, before the beginning of the fiscal year and after appropriate consultation, is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.
The exception described relates to "unforeseen emergency refugee situation[s]," and would allow the president to increase the number of refugees admitted mid-year.
So, consultation is required, but there is no requirement that the president act on such consultation. Rather, he's given virtual carte blanche to set the refugee number as he sees fit—even if that number is zero.
According to USCIS, the number of refugees admitted to the United States has fluctuated over the past decade, going from 60,107 in FY 2008 to 56,384 in FY 2011, and topping at 84,988 in FY 2016 before dropping to 53,691 in FY 2017. My colleague Nayla Rush has noted that in FY 2018, 22,491 refugees were resettled in the United States, below the announced ceiling last year of 45,000. Data from the Refugee Processing Center shows that 21,260 refugees have already been admitted in FY 2019, through June 30, 2019.
As noted, the purported proposal to cut refugee admissions (potentially to zero) sparked a response from all of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). On June 23, 2019, all 10 sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan "forcefully condemn[ing]" the plans contained in the (at least) double-hearsay report. It continues:
Reports that Trump administration officials in your agencies recently discussed slashing our FY 2020 admissions even further – from 30,000 to zero, potentially – are profoundly alarming. If true, they would confirm that the Trump administration is outright abandoning our role as the humanitarian leader of the world – even in the face of the worst displacement crisis in human history. Such a decision would do grave damage to our nation's values, our security interests, and our global standing.
This raises a couple of points. First, as my colleague Mark Krikorian tweeted in response to Senator Leahy's tweet of this letter:
But didn't you vote for the 1980 Refugee Act, that gives the president that authority? https://t.co/1Fqfy8mspr
— Mark Krikorian (@MarkSKrikorian) July 24, 2019
Unfortunately, the Senate roll call vote from the (then) Refugee Act of 1979 does not list the yeas and nays, but Senator Leahy (who has been in the Senate since 1975) almost definitely voted for it: it passed 85-0. In any event, he certainly did not vote against it, because no one did. The fundamental point is clear, however: Congress can set a floor on the number of refugees to be admitted in any year, and could have in 1980 (or 1979 in the Senate). Sponsor Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) did not do so initially, and the provision in question has not been amended to do so since.
Based on the referenced letter, at least 10 percent of the Senate would like to do so, and perhaps should introduce legislation to that effect. No legislation accompanying that letter was referenced, either on Senator Leahy’s website or in his tweet:
Any attempt by Pres Trump to zero out refugee admissions is nothing less than an effort to erase our identity as a nation of refugees and immigrants. We won't stand for it, because we #StandWithRefugees. READ my letter w all Senate Judiciary Dems HERE: https://t.co/UUl1rVbzWY
— Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) July 23, 2019
That tweet brings me to my second point. I think that it is not outside the realm of the reasonable to believe that most people #StandWithRefugees. I do not know of anyone who opposes refugees, except for those from whom they are fleeing. Is resettlement of some number of those refugees in the United States the best option, however? The numbers suggest otherwise.
My colleague Steven Camarota actually looked at those numbers in November 2015 in the context of Middle Eastern refugees. Among his findings:
- On average, each Middle Eastern refugee resettled in the United States costs an estimated $64,370 in the first five years, or $257,481 per household.
- The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has requested $1,057 to care for each Syrian refugee annually in most countries neighboring Syria.
- For what it costs to resettle one Middle Eastern refugee in the United States for five years, about 12 refugees can be helped in the Middle East for five years, or 61 refugees can be helped for one year.
The senators in that letter "call on" Pompeo and McAleenan "to restore our FY 2020 refugee admissions numbers to at least 95,000—in line with average annual admissions ceilings under all administrations over the past four decades." Using Mr. Camarota's math, for the cost of resettling 95,000 refugees in the United States, this country could provide funding for 1,140,000 refugees abroad.
It can be argued that there is some benefit to the United States in bringing some arbitrary number of refugees to this country, but this is a soft variable. And, resettlement of 95,000 provides no benefit to the remaining 1,045,000 refugees who remain behind. They cannot eat, or be sheltered under, the "moral and legal obligations" that are satisfied (in the Senators' minds, at least) by resettlement of those fortunate 95,000.
There is also the effect that resettlement has on the home regions (and especially countries and towns) those refugees will likely forever leave behind. Refugee status, pursuant to section 209 of the INA, puts a refugee on a path to citizenship. Few, if any, would ever return to rebuild their shattered communities. And, the more refugees who are resettled, the greater the civil society in those countries is hollowed out and destabilized.
This is an issue for the neighboring countries who temporarily are sheltering those refugees, as I learned when I was staff director for the National Security Subcommittee at House Oversight and Government Reform, where we looked at the refugee issue. Conflicts inevitably end, and those neighboring countries want the country or area in conflict to return to stability as quickly as possible, so as not to destabilize the rest of the region. Taking the doctors, teachers, and engineers (or even the bricklayers and manual laborers) who would otherwise provide that stability out of the region makes that effort all the more difficult.
As for the aforementioned soft variable, any benefit that would be provided by a resettled foreign national could be more than provided by successful asylum seekers already here, including some percentage of the 436,000 respondents seeking asylum in immigration-court proceedings right now.
In addition, I would note that many erstwhile refugee applicants have already informally made their way to the United States to apply for asylum here, in any event. Specifically, I saw people who had entered the United States illegally after leaving refugee camps (even with the higher number of refugee admissions in prior years noted above) when I was an immigration judge. And, as Foreign Affairs reported on July 16, 2019:
Migrants arriving at the border from outside Central America are still a minority, but their numbers are rising fast. Nine months into this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents have apprehended 53,000 migrants who are not from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras—up from 20,000 in all of 2018 and just 10,000 the year before. Forty-five percent of these migrants from Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world are traveling as families, up from less than ten percent a few years ago, mirroring the upward trend seen in Central Americans. In 2018, the most common countries of origin in this new group were India, Nicaragua, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bangladesh—with India alone accounting for about 9,000 apprehensions
I would note that 53,000 is more than 55 percent of the 95,000 refugees the senators propose resettling.
Finally, I would note that with respect to Senator Leahy, if the United States can do more for refugees, Vermont can, too. According to government statistics, of the 21,260 refugees that have arrived in FY 2019, only 105 have gone to the Green Mountain State: less than one-half of one percent of the total. Of course, Vermont is still doing better than Hawaii (home of signatory Senator Maizie K.Hirono): no refugees are listed as having gone there.
In short, maybe the refugee numbers will increase in 2020, maybe they will fall, and maybe no refugees will be admitted to the United States. Congress gave the president the authority to set refugee admissions, and they can always take that authority away. If they consider doing so, however, they may want to do a cost-benefit analysis of how the American people's money is spent as it relates to refugees, assuming they want to do the most good for the largest number of those displaced around the world.
I #StandWithRefugees, too, but at least I did the math.