Determining Refugee Ceilings: It All Depends on Who We Are Rooting for

By Nayla Rush on September 12, 2018

As we await President Trump's determination of the FY 2019 refugee ceiling, many are urging a minimum of 75,000, up from FY 2018's 45,000 ceiling.

So, what should the refugee admissions ceiling be the coming fiscal year (starting October 1)? It really depends on how we answer the following three questions: What is the purpose of resettlement? Is resettlement a conscience alleviator? And, is resettlement safe?

A lifeline or a foreign policy tool? Is the purpose of resettlement to be a protection tool, a lifeline reserved for especially vulnerable refugees such as survivors of torture, people who need urgent medical treatment, religious minorities, etc. who cannot safely stay in the country to which they fled?

If yes, then we should resettle that number of refugees to whom we are able to provide the personalized and long-term help they need to heal their wounds (mental and physical) and build a successful life in the United States.

Or, is resettlement a diplomatic tool, a foreign policy game-changer aimed at sending the right signal abroad and stabilizing refugee-hosting countries?

If yes, then we should admit a large number of refugees, much more than 75,000 or even 231,700 – FY 1980's ceiling in the wake of Vietnam War, which remains the highest ceiling to date since the creation of the refugee resettlement program.

For resettlement to have a substantial bearing on hosting countries, numbers would need to be much higher to ease the impact of refugee presence on their economy, education, environment, health system, etc. For countries that are hosting millions of refugees (such as Turkey or Lebanon), the effect (real or symbolic) of resettlement of a few thousand is minimal, akin to rain drops in the ocean.

Is resettlement a conscience alleviator? Is resettlement a conscience alleviator, an automatic mode display of our humanitarian calling to the rest of the world (and to ourselves)? If yes, then the humanitarian organizations that the U.S. government funds to run major parts of the resettlement program should help determine each year's ceiling (as they have for the most part in the past). These entities are:

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency in charge of refugee determinations and resettlement referrals. UNHCR refers a specific number of resettlement candidates to the U.S. each year, the U.S. then selects which of them to resettle.
  • Resettlement support centers (RSCs) – Nine in total, the RSCs act as overseas processing entities that prescreen refugees abroad and help them build their cases to submit to U.S. officials for resettlement.
  • Voluntary organizations (or volags) – Also nine, most religious, that get paid per capita to receive, place, and help refugees inside the United States.

Is resettlement safe? Are refugees subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, or can vetting be improved?

If the answer is yes to the former, then admission numbers are not expected to be guided by security considerations. If the answer is yes to the latter and new checks need to be put in place, then admission ceilings must take into account the implementation of enhanced security measures as well as the limited resources available to carry on these measures. Ceiling numbers, in that case, should be determined with the help of security experts.

Who are we rooting for? So, what should the refugee ceiling amount to this coming fiscal year? It all comes down to what we want the refugee resettlement program to accomplish and who we are rooting for.

If resettlement is about saving the lives of the most vulnerable refugees who are at risk in their host countries, then we should admit as many as we can, provided we help them longer and better.

If resettlement is about relieving some of the burden of hosting countries, then we need to resettle truly huge numbers of refugees to achieve such a goal.

If resettlement is a display of our good intentions, then let us be guided by those to whom we are handing blank checks to unload our guilt.

If national security issues outweigh any humanitarian or political considerations, then let us trust U.S. security officials in charge of refugee vetting to make such recommendations.

Now of course, these considerations can very well overlap; but, as with every issue, there is usually one main drive. As Harvard economist George Borjas noted about immigration policies in general, it all boils down to one question: Who are you rooting for?

According to Borjas, economics does not tell us which path to pursue when it comes to immigration policies. It just gives us facts and numbers relative to the costs and benefits of each different path. To know which path to pursue, ask yourself a simple question: Who am I rooting for? If you know the answer to this question, you'll know which path to follow.

My answer when it comes to the refugee resettlement program's path is safety and saving lives.

The refugee admissions ceiling, in my opinion, should primarily be guided by security considerations. Let government officials whose job is to keep Americans safe help President Trump determine refugee admissions ceilings. FY 2018's 45,000 ceiling seems to be a number they can work with. Why not keep it at that this coming fiscal year?

One last thing: Let us not diverge from the raison d'être of the resettlement program, a protection tool for exceptionally vulnerable refugees in situations where it is impossible for them to remain in their host country.

Let us root then for the most vulnerable refugees while not putting at risk Americans who welcome them.

Topics: Refugees