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The U.S. Falls Behind as Others Take on New Leadership Amid Record Humanitarian Pressures
September 2017

The U.S. Falls Behind as Others Take on New Leadership Amid Record Humanitarian Pressures

BurmeseFamilyAtlanta Evelyn Hockstein IRC
Evelyn Hockstein/International Rescue Committee

The Trump administration’s decision to set the refugee ceiling at 45,000 for the fiscal year beginning October 1 marks the lowest level since the refugee resettlement program was formally created in 1980. While the 45,000 is something of a victory for voices in the administration who sought to remain closer to the FY 2017 allocation of 50,000—some officials reportedly called for as few as 15,000 admissions—it is well below the previous historic low of 67,000, set by President Reagan more than 30 years ago. At a time of record humanitarian pressures, with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced worldwide and 22.5 million of them certified as refugees, the United States appears to be abandoning its leadership role.

The United States historically has admitted a larger absolute number of refugees for resettlement than any other country—in some years, more than all other countries combined. In relation to its size, however, the United States falls behind several other countries in providing solutions for refugees.

Canada, Australia, and Norway, for example, took on heavier responsibility for refugees in 2016 than did the United States, which is apparent when looking at refugee admissions per 1,000 residents. (See Table 1.) Even when the U.S. refugee ceiling was set at 85,000 in 2016, the per capita share was well below these other traditional countries of resettlement: less than 0.3 refugees per 1,000 U.S. residents, compared to a 1.29 rate in Canada and 1.14 in Australia. With the admissions ceiling for 2018 barely above half the 2016 level, that proportion will drop significantly. The United States will be reducing its intake as these other countries are raising theirs.

Table 1. Refugee Admissions per 1,000 Residents in Select Refugee Resettlement Countries, 1980-2016

Sources: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) calculations, using refugee resettlement fiscal year data for the United States from the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System, “Admissions and Arrivals,” www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/, and for other countries by calendar year from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Population Statistics,” http://popstats.unhcr.org/en/resettlement; country population data from the World Bank, “Population, total,” https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL; all data accessed September 20, 2017.

Peak U.S. refugee admissions occurred in 1980, when 207,116 refugees, largely from Vietnam and Laos, were resettled. That number did not damage the United States. Many would argue that it made the country stronger, building a vibrant Vietnamese-American community that is one of the most prosperous, educated, and well-integrated ethnic groups. The same could be said of many other refugee communities before and since.

The White House put forward three arguments in slashing the Obama administration’s FY 2017 admissions ceiling from 110,000 to 50,000, and again in trimming that number to 45,000 for the coming fiscal year: 1) Refugees open the United States to terrorist threats; 2) they pose an unacceptable financial burden; and 3) the money used for resettlement could help far more people if spent on humanitarian assistance in countries neighboring the refugees’ home countries. None of these arguments stand up to scrutiny.

The security threat posed by refugees resettled to the United States is an illusion. Refugees are the most heavily vetted of all groups who enter the country, and not one has ever killed anyone in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

As we have noted recently, rigorous studies show that refugee settlement is a net fiscal positive in the United States. Businesses, hospitals, labs, and universities have gained immeasurably from the welcome extended to refugees, as do sports, the arts, and neighborhoods across the country. By throwing the net wide to resettle refugees, the United States has caught some big fish, including Google’s Sergey Brin and Intel’s Andy Grove. The net fiscal effects of refugee resettlement should take into account the taxes paid by the businesses created and supported by refugees and by the millions of people employed there.

While the administration shows some signs of recognizing that refugees can, indeed, bring benefits to their new country, its application of that knowledge is inconsistent with the humanitarian purpose of the refugee program. In its report to Congress on the 2018 refugee ceiling, the administration said the Departments of State and Homeland Security will make sure that in addition to refugee protection needs, referrals to the resettlement program “take into account certain criteria that enhance a refugee’s likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution to the United States.” This stance marks a sharp departure from the intent of the resettlement program, which Congress founded to “respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” The refugee program is supposed to respond to their needs, not ours. And no one in the U.S. government can tell which refugees will grow into greatness when resettlement allows them to realize their potential.

As opponents of refugee resettlement cast about for a rationale, a third argument, with a humanitarian veneer, has recently been raised: that the United States could help more people by spending the resettlement budget on assistance to refugees in the countries of first asylum near their homelands: for example, providing assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, and to Somali refugees in Kenya, rather than bringing them to the United States. But refugee resettlement differs fundamentally from care and maintenance in a poor or middle-income country of first asylum—and that is where 86 percent of refugees live. Most refugees in those countries live in limbo, mired in poverty, unable to work legally, lucky to get their children even through elementary school and with almost no hope of high school or college, and vulnerable to being sent back to the violence and chaos of their homelands if the political winds shift. Resettlement, on the other hand, gives people the chance to rebuild their lives in safety and create a future where their children can become the next technology titans or the next neighborhood restaurant owners.

Reducing the U.S. resettlement program to historic lows at a time of record global humanitarian need is not in keeping with the United States’ long-standing history of leadership in this area.