Help Refugees, but Stop Feeding the Refugee-Resettlement Industry

By Jessica Vaughan on October 22, 2015

National Review Online, October 22, 2015

The mass-migration spectacle unfolding in Europe in recent months, preceded by news of destruction and mayhem committed by ISIS in Syria, has touched the hearts and consciences of Americans. Images of desperate, weary people trudging into Europe have prompted demands from faith leaders, members of Congress, refugee-resettlement contractors, and newspaper editorial boards for Americans to "do our part."

Zeal for ramping up refugee resettlement is not so prevalent outside the elite groups demanding more admissions. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that only 39 percent of Americans were in favor of admitting more refugees; 46 percent were opposed. It is remarkable that this category of immigrant, formerly sacrosanct, apparently is now as controversial as the categories "guest workers" and "anchor babies." How did that happen?

Part of the answer is the sheer number of new arrivals in refugee and other categories. The United States has admitted approximately 500,000 U.N.-designated refugees since President Obama took office in 2009. That is 70 percent of all such refugees who have been resettled worldwide. Every year, tens of thousands more have been granted political asylum and humanitarian parole.

In addition, about 500,000 people, including Haitians, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Somalians, who arrived either illegally or as temporary visitors, have since been granted temporary protected status, because of crises in their homelands. And in the past three years more than 150,000 Central American families and teenagers have surged over the southern border, been apprehended by the Border Patrol, and then been released to join friends and family in the United States.

Some point to these numbers as proof that we can easily absorb more. "We welcomed approximately 200,000 refugees during the Balkan Wars, 700,000 refugees from Cuba, and more than 700,000 refugees from Vietnam," wrote a group of 27 Senate Democrats to colleagues. "Compared with these historic numbers, we can do better than 10,000 slots for Syrian families."

We can do better, for the refugees and for the host communities, but bringing more refugees here is not necessarily better. To survive here, they require a considerable support network and a large array of welfare services. Gone are the days when community groups, often churches, would sponsor and serve as the primary source of financial support for refugees. Now the resettlement effort is funded almost entirely by governments (i.e., taxpayers) and carried out by a network of government contractors, known as "volags," or voluntary agencies, though no volunteering is involved.

Each refugee receives from the State Department an initial grant of $1,975, of which the local resettlement contractor may keep $750, to cover a couple of months' worth of furnished housing, food, clothing, and other immediate necessities. The resettlement contractors help refugees find jobs — but also make sure they sign up for longer-term traditional welfare benefits for which they are immediately eligible, such as food stamps, public housing, cash assistance, health care, and child care. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services doles out approximately $1.5 billion in grants to state and local agencies, schools, and non-profits for refugee-oriented support programs, such as legal advocacy, language education, mental-health services, domestic-violence prevention, and follow-on immigration-application assistance.

The resettlement agencies and their federal funders boast that most refugees become self-sufficient within four months, which is conveniently about the time that the direct federal support grants run out and the responsibilities of the refugee contractors end. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, for example, claims that 92 percent of the refugees it assisted in 2014 became economically "self-sufficient" within 120 days. They earned an average wage of $9.66 an hour. But, according to the MIT living-wage calculator, a person really needs to make $11.13 per hour to live in Vermont, and more like $23 per hour to support a small family there. What the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Programs call self-sufficiency in fact entails dependency on public welfare.

Earlier this year, a Congressional Research Service report found that 74 percent of the refugees who arrived in the past five years were on food stamps, 56 percent were accessing Medicaid, 47 percent were receiving cash assistance, and 23 percent were in public housing. Only 11 percent were getting health insurance through an employer. Other studies have shown that refugees are twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the population. The Heritage Foundation has calculated that the 10,000 Syrians who would be admitted under the president's plan would eventually collect about $6.5 billion in services over the next 50 years. Much of that would be borne by local communities.

It's no surprise that most refugees are dependent on government support. Most arrive destitute, and many have had little opportunity for education. By definition, they faced persecution or some other trauma in their homeland. They deserve our compassion and need a hand. But if local communities are expected to provide most of the support, surely they deserve a say in the process. Right now they have none.

The Refugee Act of 1980 transformed refugee resettlement from a largely charitable endeavor into a huge government-grant program carried out by organizations that are classified as non-profits but should be more accurately described as government contractors. Communities do not choose to host refugees; they are chosen by the contractors.

Some big-city mayors recently announced their willingness to host some of the Syrian refugees, as a public gesture of support for greater admissions, but in practice relatively few refugees are resettled in major cities, because the cost of living is too high. Instead, employees of the nine principal resettlement organizations meet each week in a nondescript office suite outside Washington, D.C., to identify resettlement locations and divvy up the cases, according to agreements they make with local partners, who become their subcontractors.

The local groups are encouraged to coordinate with local officials, but in practice little consultation occurs. "We really don't have any say, to be honest," Ed Pawlowski, the mayor of Allentown, Pa., told a reporter recently. Local government officials, including the schools and police and health departments, typically are not asked how many can be accommodated, but are told how many are arriving. There is little to no outreach to the public at large, and ordinary members of the community rarely, if ever, have the chance to weigh in.

The contractors do make an effort to spread refugees around the country. But a significant amount of uncontrollable "secondary migration" occurs, when refugees decide to relocate, either for jobs or for more-generous welfare benefits or to join an established community of prior refugees with whom they share language and culture. Some communities may end up with a larger refugee population than they originally expected, which partly explains how refugees have disproportionately clustered in, for example, Minneapolis; Lewiston, Maine; and Dearborn, Mich. Some of the primary resettlement areas have experienced a double-whammy influx of both refugees and new illegal family and teen arrivals from Central America.

Refugees often have little to lose by moving, because most of the time they are getting from the resettlement contractors very little in the way of real support outside of some cash assistance. Some municipal governments have started to complain that the contractors are "dumping" refugees in their cities without taking responsibility to help them succeed. One mayor, Domenic Sarno, of Springfield, Mass., begged for the State Department to suspend refugee resettlement in his city for the sake of those who had already arrived, saying the city needed time to properly absorb them. The local contractors had placed groups of Somalian refugees in decrepit, substandard housing in some of the seediest parts of the city and left them to fend for themselves — to arrange for heat and other basic winter necessities that were completely unfamiliar to them. Many were isolated, without skills to navigate city life, and some became victims of crime. They felt, and were, abandoned by the resettlement organizations.

The local resettlement groups, backed by the State Department, replied that the mayor had no legal ability to halt the flow of refugees into his city and that his complaints would only be harmful to the vulnerable refugee population. The CEO of one of the sponsoring volags stated that the solution was for the mayor to work together with them to lobby federal and state governments for more funding for their services.

Meanwhile, other "pockets of resistance," as they are called by one of the national refugee contractors, are forming all over the country, demanding transparency and accountability from the federal government and the volags. Some states and localities have tried opting out of the official federal resettlement program, only to find that the State Department allows contractors to run "private" resettlement programs and continue bringing in refugees anyway.

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing focused on the president's plan to resettle more Syrians. Federal officials squirmed under questioning about fraud, the inadequacy of security vetting, and high dependency rates among refugees. Several bills have been introduced to require federal agencies and their contractors to consult more with local governments. One bill would block further refugee admissions until the total cost of resettlement programs can be determined and published.

Transparency and accountability are badly needed, not only for local governments and taxpayers footing the bill, but for Congress to assess whether the current paradigm, including the current practice of allowing the president to set annual admissions targets for refugee resettlement, should be continued year after year. Given the enormous cost of refugee resettlement, and the limits to what individual communities can manage, lawmakers must resist calls for drastic increases in government resettlement programs and instead put the emphasis on providing more assistance to refugees in safe havens nearer their homeland.