A Disingenuous Critique of Our Refugee Report

By Steven A. Camarota on October 9, 2020

In March of this year, I co-authored a CIS report on the fiscal impact of refugee resettlement. Two weeks ago, the Niskanen Center's Jeremy Neufeld published a remarkably misleading critique, concealing his highly questionable assumptions in order to portray our report as objectively wrong. Of course, had Neufeld simply said he had a different opinion about how to use the available data and then explained the difference to his readers, that would one thing. But that is not what he did. Instead, Neufeld not only mischaracterized our analysis, he also withheld important information from his readers about the Annual Survey of Refugees (ASR) we used in our report.

My co-authors and I estimated refugee costs on the basis of education. In short, highly educated refugees will likely be net fiscal contributors, while less educated refugees will likely impose a fiscal burden. In arguing that the aggregate cost is not as large as we found, Neufeld accused us of employing an "arbitrary" method to "downgrade" the education levels of refugees. This claim is both false and disingenuous. Understanding why requires reading his charge at length:

The [Annual Survey of Refugees] includes a question on educational attainment. Yet rather than rely on refugees' responses, the CIS report opts to subject their answers to arbitrary cutoffs based on the ASR's years of schooling question. CIS effectively downgrades refugees' educational attainment before plugging them into the National Academies model.

For instance, the National Academies would consider a university graduate with a BA after 15 years of schooling, a college grad. CIS, on the other hand, codes the graduate as only having "some college" because they didn't have a full 16 years of schooling. As for a person who graduated high school and went to technical school with a total of 12 years of education, CIS codes them as having less than a high school diploma because they didn't complete 12 years of education. Even if they do have 12 years of education, graduated high school, and attended technical school, CIS codes them only as having a high school diploma.

Neufeld's readers must be wondering why CIS would do something so obviously erroneous! Let me provide the necessary background that he has chosen to omit. The National Academies calculated fiscal impacts of immigrants by their age and education. To apply those estimates to refugees, we obtained refugees' age and education data from the Annual Survey of Refugees (ASR). One complication, however, is that the education categories in the ASR do not map neatly onto the categories used by the National Academies.

For example, while associate's degrees ("some college"), bachelor's degrees ("college"), and graduate degrees are explicitly separated in the National Academies data, the ASR has an ambiguous category for higher education called "university degree". What does this category mean? We asked the Urban Institute's Hamutal Bernstein, who is a principal investigator for the ASR. "It could mean anything from associate's degree to advanced degree," she told us. "There were no definitions, probes, or supports provided to interviewers on this question."

Since the university response likely reflects a range of degrees, we turned to the other important piece of information that the ASR provides about education — the number of years each refugee spent in school. We placed "university degree" refugees in the bachelor's category if they had 16 years of schooling, in the graduate category if they had more than 16 years, and in the some-college category if they had fewer than 16 years. This natural approach, fully disclosed in Table 3 of our report, is not something we expected to be controversial.

Neufeld, by contrast, implicitly assumes that all "university degree" refugees must have at least a bachelor's degree — a highly questionable assumption, since it is not uncommon for refugees in this category to report between 12 and 15 years of schooling.

To illustrate, Figure 1 shows the distribution of school years among refugees listed as having some type of university degree. Below that in the figure is a comparison of the CIS and Neufeld allocation methods. The degree allocations are represented by the colored bars stretched across the years of schooling they encompass at the bottom of the figure.

Figure 1. Years of Schooling Among Refugees
with Some Type of "University Degree"

Source: 2016 Annual Survey of Refugees, unweighted sample, arrival age of at least 25.

BA = bachelor's degree.

We also used years of schooling to allocate the ambiguous category of "technical school certification". In our view, this category plausibly ranges from a pre-high-school apprenticeship to an associate's degree, so we classified technical-school refugees as less than high school if they had less than 12 years of schooling, high school if they reached 12 years, and some college if they had more than 12.

Again choosing to lop off the bottom of our plausible range, Neufeld considers all technical certifications to constitute some college, despite the large number of refugees in this category who reported only 12 years of education or even less in some cases. Our competing methods are illustrated below in Figure 2. Again, the degree allocations are represented by the colored bars stretched across the years of schooling they encompass at the bottom of the figure.

Figure 2. Years of Schooling Among Refugees with Some Type of "Technical School Certification"

Source: 2016 Annual Survey of Refugees, unweighted sample, arrival age of at least 25.

HS = high school diploma.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide which allocation is more reasonable.

Now put that debate aside. What makes Neufeld's critique so disingenuous is that he never tells his readers about the ambiguity in the degree variable. He never even reveals that he needed to devise his own allocation methods. Instead, he refers to refugees with bachelor's degrees as if there is no doubt as to exactly what type of degree they have. With his admonition to simply "rely on refugees' responses" to the degree question, he even gives the false impression that a bachelor's degrees is an explicit category in the ASR. To be clear, there is nothing in the survey or accompanying documentation to indicate that those who report a "university degree" must have a bachelor's degree, as Neufeld asserts.

Similarly, he speaks of "a person who graduated high school and went to technical school" — as if technical-school refugees are explicitly identified as high school graduates. In fact, there is nothing in the survey to indicate that those with technical-school degrees must have high school degrees, let alone that they have completed some college, as Neufeld asserts. Since a significant share of people with this degree report fewer than 12 years of schooling, his claim that they all should be regarded as having some college makes no sense. But given the limited information he provides his readers, I wouldn't blame them for thinking that we at CIS are schemers or blunderers for "downgrading" degrees. What else could they think?

To reiterate, we never "downgraded" anyone. The whole point of combining the ambiguous degree responses with years of education was to figure out who had which types of degrees, not to alter the status of refugees with known degrees. (In fact, when the ASR degree category was unambiguous — e.g., "secondary" clearly means a high school diploma — we did not utilize years of schooling at all.) Our approach was as fair, accurate, and transparent as we could make it. Neufeld's readers might even agree — if he were willing to tell them the whole story.

Topics: Refugees