Refugee resettlement in the United States is as politicized as it has been in generations. That is a shame, because our current dumbed-down debate distracts us from reforms that could attract consensus support, decreasing security risks while ensuring the program’s viability.
To detractors, the current system endangers American lives and undermines democracy; the program’s architects are well-meaning, but naïve and dismissive of security concerns. For proponents, resettling refugees is a moral obligation and an unalloyed national good; critics are frightened, if not xenophobic and selfish.
Following the September 18 terrorist attacks in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota—and news reports that perpetrators Ahmad Khan Rahami and Dahir Adan were immigrants—the internet seethed with both denunciations and formulaic defenses of refugee resettlement in the United States.
In response to the administration’s September 15 announcement that it plans to resettle 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, including a “significantly higher number” of Syrian refugees (than the approximately 13,000 resettled in FY 2016), some members of Congress may again oppose full funding of resettlement-related Department of State and Department of Homeland Security operations.
At least thirty-one governors have now come out in opposition to resettlement of Syrian refugees, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who announced September 30 that Texas (which has the second largest program in the country) would end its cooperation with the federal program.
People on both sides are guilty of misstatements and exaggerations. Since we seem to be headed toward another round of rhetorical artillery from both sides, here are eight common positions taken by defenders or detractors of refugee resettlement, and why they are misguided:
1. “The United States Must Resettle (Its Fair Share of) Refugees.”
Given the scope of the current global refugee crisis , it is not surprising that refugee advocates are saying the United States has a duty to raise its resettlement quotas . But what is America’s “fair share?”
Resettlement of refugees is not obligatory under international or domestic law. While the obligation not to return people to persecution in their home countries (“non-refoulement”) is the most important provision of the 1951 Refugee Convention (and 1967 Protocol, which the United States has ratified), once a refugee reaches a first country of asylum, “third countries” do not have an obligation to provide onward immigration.
We can as a matter of policy slow or halt refugee admissions from certain countries or end the program entirely. Our humanitarian tradition is something Americans should be proud of, but it is not the only legitimate national interest.
The U.S. government also has responsibility for public safety, government budgets, diplomatic interests, economic prosperity, and promoting “general welfare” in the broadest sense. If resettlement of refugees, in whole or in part, was found inconsistent with those other equities, longstanding practice could be changed. Political debate tends to focus on two numerical decisions—the administration’s fiscal year refugee resettlement goal , including country-specific targets, and Congressional funding for associated State Department and Department of Homeland Security implementation. Thus, Congressional hearings that feature administration officials explaining the program and being asked tough questions (like the September 28 hearing chaired by Senator Sessions) are vital and appropriate, even when they are messy and disputatious.
Calls by foreign leaders, UN officials, or refugee advocates for the United States to take a “fair share” (variously defined) of the world’s refugees are requests, not directives, and some of those demands come from governments seeking to evade their own humanitarian responsibilities. One tendentious criticism sometimes lobbed at the United States is that we do not host refugees in the same proportion, when compared to our overall population, as other refugee host countries.
The reason we don’t have millions of refugees sitting in camps to be counted is that we ensure resettled refugees (more than 3 million through the formal resettlement pipeline since 1975) get legal status immediately and can apply for citizenship after five years in the country. And that 3 million does not include millions more who ultimately regularize their legal status after being granted “temporary protected status” in the United States in response to dire conditions in their home country; entering on tourist, work, or student visas and claiming asylum; or coming to America unlawfully and being granted permission to stay.
Countries that refuse to allow resident refugees to work, go to school, or obtain broader political rights may be able to claim generations of refugees, but their behavior does not qualify as humanitarian. The reason America does not host more “refugees” than some other countries is that we make so many of them citizens.
2. “We Don’t Need Refugees.”
The choice whether to continue, change, or end the resettlement program is ours. If we are wise, however, we won’t make radical changes to the program without careful consideration of both risks and benefits, including a review of why resettlement of refugees has enjoyed strong bipartisan support historically, has been adequately funded by Congress, and has been actively solicited by officials from cities and regions around the country, particularly those with aging populations and slumping economies.