Refugee Resettlement Fallacies

By Nayla Rush on April 19, 2018

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) (and a former British cabinet minister), criticized the Trump administration in a recent op-ed for its "animus" towards the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Miliband warned: Trump's "competent and malevolent" refugee policy is bound to result in "no resettlement program at the end of this administration."

Miliband, like many refugee advocates before him, makes a number of false assertions as he laments the current drop in refugee admissions into the U.S. Let me address some of them.

1) Miliband: "Refugee entry is focused on the most vulnerable people: victims of torture, those with urgent medical needs, and needy women and children, who constitute three quarters of the total." (Emphasis added)

That is not true. As I have noted before (see here and here), refugees with no specific vulnerabilities or urgent needs are being resettled in the U.S. By the UN refugee agency's own account, almost all refugees submitted for resettlement are under normal circumstances "where there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns which would merit expedited processing."

2) Miliband: "None are safe in their home countries."

Of course not; by definition, a refugee is someone who fled persecution at home and sought refuge in another country. What the IRC chief forgot to ask is whether these refugees were safe in the country they fled to.

The resettlement program is designed to assist those who are, in the U.S. State Department's words, "especially vulnerable; those who fled violence or persecution and cannot safely stay where they are or return home" (Emphasis added). But most refugees resettled here were not in danger in the country they fled to. The U.S. is resettling refugees who are not more vulnerable than other refugees undergoing similar hardships and who are not in danger where they are.

Why resettle them and not others?

3) Miliband: "All [resettled refugees] are subject to extensive vetting by at least eight U.S. government agencies."

True, but this remains insufficient because, for the most part, there is simply no information to check against. Vetting measures must be improved, especially for refugees coming from countries that present national-security challenges. On Syrian refugees, for example, then-director of the FBI James Comey testified to the following: "There is risk associated with bringing anybody in from the outside, but specifically from a conflict zone like that... My concern is that there are certain gaps in the data available to us."

Furthermore, what Miliband forgot to mention is that the organization he heads participates in the "extensive vetting" process of refugees.

Nine State Department-funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) abroad – one of which is run by Miliband's IRC – play an important role in the refugee admissions process. They conduct in-person prescreening interviews, help refugee applicants prepare their cases, and collect information that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers later use to adjudicate cases. Also, all biographic checks are based on data gathered by RSCs.

Three RSCs that prescreen refugees abroad and help them build their cases to submit to U.S. officials for resettlement are also Voluntary Agencies (Volags) that get paid per capita to receive and place them inside the United States. IRC is one of them. No need to underline the clear conflict of interest here.

The RSCs' prescreening job is less than perfect, to say the least. According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the U.S. Refugee Admission Program's (USRAP )screening process and vulnerability to fraud, measures put in place by the U.S. State Department to monitor RSCs' performance and evaluate their key activities like prescreening and preparation of case files for resettlement applicants are not sufficient. Of the 70 Refugee Affairs Division (RAD) trip reports GAO analyzed that contained feedback on RSC activities, only 10 (14 percent) showed satisfaction with RSC case preparations. 45 (64 percent) identified major concerns. Other concerns such as staff fraud and applicant fraud were also underlined by GAO.

Vetting and integrity measures can and are being improved – hence the slowing down of refugee admissions.

What is also important to keep in mind is that vetting is key to checking past behaviors but does not secure the future. Radical Islamists prey on vulnerable communities; they can take advantage of young refugees who feel estranged in their hosting country.

The case of one refugee in particular comes to mind here, that of Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a 20-year-old Somali national, who drove his car on November 28, 2016, into a group of students at Ohio State University then started stabbing people before he was shot and killed by a police officer. (Thankfully, no one else was fatally wounded.) Artan, his mother, and six siblings were resettled in the United States from Pakistan in 2014. They probably underwent "extensive vetting", but if U.S. officials found nothing, it was probably because there was nothing to find. Radicalization came later for one of them.

4) Miliband: "[T]he whole [vetting] process, including interviews and biometric tests, takes 18 to 24 months."

True, USRAP processing time can take that long, but the process is more about waiting than it is vetting. GAO's review shows that from initiation of the biographic security checks (following prescreening interviews by RSCs) through the last completed Interagency Check (usually the last check prior to departure for the U.S.) the median time was eight months.

The same observation was made over two years ago by the State Department's Kelly Gauger at a discussion of the Syrian refugee crisis: "It takes 18 months to vet a refugee to come to the US. We are not spending 18 months doing security checks...[W]e are not the fastest program in the world. It's a large ship that takes a long time to turn." (Emphasis added)

5) Miliband: "The Cato Institute has estimated the chance of an American dying in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee to be 1 in 3.64 billion per year." 

Refugees admitted in the United States have committed acts of terrorism or were convicted of terror-related crimes, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan noted last year.

Acts of terror committed by people admitted into the United States as refugees that resulted in the deaths of Americans are indeed rare (thankfully). But that doesn't include acts that were planned, uncovered and stopped, or carried out without the loss of American lives (such as the Somali national mentioned above).

The 9/11 attack occurred once, and it is unlikely a similarly horrific act will materialize again – because measures were taken and improved year after year to make sure it doesn't. U.S. authorities need to remain vigilant.

6) Miliband: "[O]ver the past decade, refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenue than they cost." 

Miliband is basing this assertion on an unpublished government report posted by the New York Times. My colleague Steven Camarota took issue with the way this study was constructed, raising the following points:

  • "[B]y excluding a large set of government costs, the author(s) make it almost inevitable from the start that refugees will be net fiscal contributors."
  • "By examining only the period from 2005 to 2014 while including refugees who arrived as early as 1980, the researcher(s) ensured their analysis was done mostly on refugees who are established residents."
  • "A third issue with the study is that it fails to acknowledge that most of the refugees they are looking at arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, when the flow was much more educated…refugees currently arriving are much less educated than those who came in prior decades, which has profound fiscal implications."

Camarota also noted that the study fails to take into account the fact that "[t]he welfare state has become more generous over time."

Indeed, refugees are not interchangeable. Some do better than others.

In line with Miliband's assertion, the Migration Policy Institute noted in a fact sheet on refugee resettlement that employment rates of refugee men in the 2009-2010 period exceeded those of their U.S.-born counterparts: 67 percent for refugee men vs. 60 percent for U.S.-born men. For women, the rate is similar for both categories: more than half work (54 percent).

But the same MPI depicts a less shining reality in an in-depth report on "The Integration Outcomes of U.S. Refugees: Successes and Challenges". In fact, results vary by nationality and arrival date. The employment rates of Burmese, Iraqi, and Somali refugee men are at or below U.S.-born men's employment rate. For refugee women, only four of the top-10 most common origin groups' employment rates exceeded those of U.S.-born women: Vietnamese, Liberians, Ukrainians, and Russians. All six remaining groups fell below U.S.-born women's rate: Cubans (49 percent), Iranians (46 percent), Burmese (42 percent), Somalis (41 percent), Bhutanese (36 percent), and Iraqis (27 percent). According to MPI, "the relatively low employment rates of women from some refugee groups often translates into fewer workers per household and, in turn, lower household incomes."

MPI also concluded that recent arrivals do not do as well as earlier ones. The median household income for those who arrived during the past five years was 42 percent of the U.S.-born population median. This median goes up to 87 percent for those who arrived 10 to 20 years ago. Refugees from Vietnam and Russia had the highest median incomes ($52,000 and $50,000). These groups arrived for the most part before 2000. As for Somalis, Iraqis, and Bhutanese (all recent arrivals), they had the lowest household incomes ($20,000 or less). For three groups of refugees — Iraqis, Somalis, and Cubans — longer U.S. residence does not equate with higher income.

Furthermore, MPI noted that "income gains observed among earlier arrivals may not be replicated for those who arrived more recently." In the 2009-2011 period, refugee incomes "remained substantially below those of the U.S.-born" even after more than 10 years in the United States. And refugees were more likely than the U.S.-born to be low-income.

7) Miliband: "By offering a new life for the lucky few, the United States upholds its highest ideals, sets an example for others and stands with allies bearing the greatest load." (Emphasis added).

Great, but how are those "lucky few" picked? If this selection is not based on extreme vulnerabilities or imminent dangers, what justifies giving some and not others access to a better life in the U.S.?

Topics: Refugees