The number of refugees
from nations plagued by civil and sectarian war, admitted to the US under the US Refugees Admissions Program (USRAP) peaked during President Barack Obama’s final year in office (August and September 2016) and dropped considerably from October to January, continuing to drop in Donald Trump’s first year. The below graph illustrates the numbers over the last 10 years of the program:
Although refugees were brought to the US prior to USRAP – USRAP commenced formally during the Carter administration and was continued by Ronald Reagan. Since 1975, close to 3 million refugees have attained (before the fact) asylum status through USRAP and previous programs. The high point of resettlement was actually in 1980 – when 200,000 refugees were admitted in a single year. We admit more refugees than any other country internationally and it cost taxpayers over half a billion dollars in FY 2016.
Curbing the extent of the program was one of Donald Trump’s campaign pledges last year. As far back as 2015, Trump was disseminating misleading narratives on refugees. “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are — some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?” Actually, only 2,000 refugees from Syria were admitted to the U.S. in that year, and the screening process was very stringent. We knew precisely who the applicants were.
One of his executive orders has curtailed the program sharply. We’ll examine the program and present not only the facts of its operation, but how it is viewed by supporters and detractors.
Who and what are these refugees / asylum seekers?
2/3rds of those admitted through the program are from either Africa or South Asia – which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In 2017 – and in the past 9 years, the number one language category of asylum seekers (130,174) admitted was Arabic and over the same period, the number three language was Somali (56,607), which corresponds to the widespread public perception of the program.
USRAP defines the term refugee as “someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Only a small portion (under 1%) of the 21.3 million people who meet this definition are eventually resettled to a third country.
The most controversial aspect of USRAP are the refugees processed from Syria, Iraq and Somalia. The actual process is rigorous as described by the State Department, which administers the program until refugees are assigned to a domestic non-profit organization, which places them in communities across the country.
The would be asylee, must first reach an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to be interviewed and registered as an applicant. That office pre-screens the individual or family and refers those who meet the basic eligibility tests to a U.S. Department of State resettlement support center (RSC), which in turn conducts a pre-screening interview and prepares a case file. Involved here are photos, fingerprints and preliminary security checks. The entire span of time from application to acceptance, can run from 18 months and in some cases, two years.
Following this is another interview with an immigration officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If after reviewing the data in the case file, USCIS determines eligibility, a medical exam is performed along with a ‘cultural orientation‘.
The cultural orientation performed by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) includes instruction dealing with employment, education, health, housing, community resources for immigrants and the importance of acquiring english language skills. But the other aspect of the orientation that is of the greatest interest to Americans is the matter of what the program labels, “Rights and Responsibilities”, which is described by the agency as covering:
“U.S. laws that are most important for refugees; of special interest are family reunification and adjustment of status regulations, common legal problems encountered by refugees (such as driving without a license), cultural practices that may conflict with U.S. customs, and laws relating to domestic violence. “
It is this aspect that shadows the refugee resettlement program in the most generous of American minds – particularly given the sense that Americans have of Middle Eastern and North African societies and the frightening accounts of honor-killings and sectarian brutality.
Crime and refugees
The New American Economy studied State Department and FBI (Uniform Crime Reporting Program) data of the 10 cities in the US that received the most refugees relative to the size of their population between 2006 and 2015 and concluded, as shown in the below chart, that out of the ten, crime (as classified by violent and property crimes) decreased in nine of them.
The Terror risk
As to the concern regarding terrorism, there have been a modest number of cases during the tenure of the program, such as the arrest and conviction of Fazliddin Kurbanov, an Uzbekistan national who was admitted to the U.S. in August 2009 and resettled in Boise. His trial resulted in a federal conviction on conspiracy, possession of an unregistered destructive device and providing support to terrorists. U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge sentenced him to 25 years in federal prison.
The other convictions also generally center on charges of attempting to materially assist foreign terrorist groups. During a hearing on Trump’s travel ban, the judge – U.S. District Judge James L. Robart asked DOJ attorney Michelle Bennett, “Have there been terrorist attacks in the United States by refugees or other immigrants from the seven countries listed since 9/11?” Ms. Bennett answered that she did not have the information he was requesting. The judge then replied, “The answer to that is none, as best I can tell.”
The judge was misinformed. Of the 3,252,493 refugees admitted to the U.S. from 1975 through the end of 2015 – 20 tried to commit attacks within this country’s borders, but only three were successful, killing three people, according to “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis”, a report issued by the Cato Institute in September. This would equate to a ratio of one attempted attack per every 162,625 refugees.
Supporters of the resettlement programs point out that the three attacks were carried out by Cubans in the mid 1970s, well before the enhanced and rigorous screening of USRAP were implemented.
Immigrants, apart from asylees, have been involved in notable terror activities and in the view of critics of the program – refugees pose an equivalent risk in terms of vulnerability to domestic radicalization. But as experts such as Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, observe, “the refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose.”
The politics of refugee resettlement
For many opponents of refugee resettlement, possible violent crime is only one concern. The other issues they point to are that asylees disrupt the culture of the communities they are placed in and the concerns of those communities are subordinated to the demands and interests of the resettlement NGOs (Non Government Organizations) that the State Department partners with.
Among the nine largest resettlement NGOs, the two most prominent players are the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), with recent budgets of $80 million and annual processing of 25,000 refugees and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) – which has been in the refugee game for 75 years and claims a role in the settlement of half a million refugees over that time.
Of fears of incompatibility of the asylum seekers with American society, Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO states, “We are not afraid of our new neighbors and are not fooled by cruel and false claims that refugees are a threat to our safety. The American legacy of welcoming refugees has made us stronger and better, and the government’s own research proves that refugees bring economic benefit to our country through their hard work.”
Critics of the USRAP and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) suspect that the humanitarian premise of bringing in tens of thousands of refugees is really a cover for the NGOs and their partners at the local level to perennially siphon money from taxpayers and donors, while at the same time, benefiting large employers like meat packing plants looking for any low wage labor they can get. Says Brigitte Gabriel, President of Act for America:
“Refugee resettlement is not about humanitarianism. It is about supplying cheap labor – industries looking to boost their bottom line is what drives most refugee resettlement in the United States today.”
Additionally, opponents propose that the cost of social services for refugees greatly outweighs the tax revenue generated by their employment. That might seem intuitive in light of the fact that refugees are eligible for public assistance 30 days after settlement – but it is not born out by the numbers. In fact, a report published by Trump’s own department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that refugees provided a net surplus to the treasury of $63 billion.
Christians and Muslim refugees
Unbelievers in the resettlement regime also point to the contradiction of church involvement in a program in which, Christians, who are the most likely targets of Islamist militants and terrorists, are not being proportionately admitted. But the facts do not bear that narrative. As the following chart illustrates, Christians are a significant part of the resettlement aggregate, even higher than their statistical proportion in the countries they emigrate from.
In fact, the Pew Research Center notes that during the past 15 years, the U.S. has admitted 399,677 Christian refugees and 279,339 Muslim refugees.
This means that 46% of all refugees who have entered the U.S. during this time have been Christian while 32% have been Muslim.
However, with regard to the 12,587 Syrians admitted to the US, the equation disproportionately advantages Muslims who were 99% of the total and less than 1% were Christian.
That is the number that underlines a lot of the narratives on the alt-Right web which spin that the numbers are disproportionate in favor of Muslims.
Trump has lowered the ceiling on the total potential number of refugees admitted to 45,000 – about half of 2016’s total.
The poisonous rhetoric of Trumpism
Although this is pointed to by conservatives as a wise course correction and even some Trump detractors concede that it is a rare example from Trump of the “broken clock” syndrome – the manner in which Trump has framed these policies is politically toxic to all but his most fervent voting base.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 19, 2016
Trump’s rhetoric and actions with regard to refugee programs and immigration broadly, emanate from nationalism, not conservatism. This is unfortunate, because a conservative case can be made for reassessing both immigration and refugee resettlement, such as this articulated presentation from Roy Beck of Numbers USA:
So, Trump has done something that is arguably a reflection of basic common sense and prudence, but also arguably placed that common sense and prudence in the hostile custody of ugly xenophobia.
Conservatives would be wise to wrestle this immigration / refugee narrative away from him and put an end to the fear and hate mongering that poison the discourse on it.