Refugees and False Choice

Posted on October 27, 2016 by CwP

Immigration has been an ongoing topic of interest for some time, and has been an area of focused discussion during this presidential campaign season. Yesterday I was engaged in a brief discussion the sub-topic of refugee immigration. A coworker pointed that we should focus on people who need help at home before helping people abroad. This is a very naïve sentiment and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of both the issues of refugee resettlement and “people who need help in this country” (an expansive topic in its own right).

First, the focus on people “in this country” is informed by a nativist, near isolationist sentiment that has been expressed to some extent since time immemorial, and that has increased in promulgation since the beginning of the primary season in 2015. From a foundational perspective, these views misunderstand the nature of the world as it currently exists. It simply isn’t in any country’s long-term interests to completely divest itself of foreign interests. Business and economic output, communications, transportation, and security to name just a few major concerns rely on successful interactions with other nations, and sometimes with non-state actors as well. We have to deal with the rest of the world in order to be successful.

Specifically on the topic of refugee resettlement, this presents a false choice between helping refugees and helping people at home. The notion is that the resources required to resettle refugees are taken from resources that might otherwise go to domestic assistance (of some unspecified kind). This is simply not true. Federal monies are allocated along very specific funding streams, and the congress determines which accounts get what amount of money based on the needs put forward by the government agencies that execute the respective programs. Theoretically, all programs could be viewed as competing for limited taxpayer resources, but this is not the direct competition insinuated by the “help us before you help them” position. If there were competition for limited money then then national priorities would determine which agencies got the most funding, but our federal government has operated a deficit budget for decades now, so programs tend to get most of the funding they request.

On funding, another aspect peculiar to immigration programs is that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a fee-funded entity. That means that the entirety of the USCIS operating budget — with the exception of administration of the E-Verify system — is collected through fees charged to applicants for immigration benefits. The refugee program does not charge applicants due to its humanitarian charter, but the costs are covered by fees collected though the administration of other immigration programs. So in the case of refugee processing there is no direct or indirect budgetary competition. Costs associated with resettlement within the US are administered through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and initial expenses associated with refugees are offset through future contribution to GDP and collection of taxes. There are also state-funded and administered programs that work with HHS/ORR to fund the initial settlement of refugees, so the burden is not entirely on the federal coffers.


The argument of conflicting resources fails based on its premise of resource competition, but that claim is really a veil for the broad anti-immigrant sentiment that has been fomented over the last year and some change (again tied to the nationalism/nativism/isolationism previously touched upon). If people are concerned about helping people in the US then they can do a number of things, from volunteering, to donating to charities, to calling their local, state, and federal representatives and asking for a shift in priorities. The true issue underlying this is the overarching demonization of immigrants, and the specific claim that certain refugees (such as from Syria and Iraq) pose a significant security risk to the US. One candidate has gone so far as to say that there is no vetting of Syrian refugees at all. This is patently false.

The USCIS has a lengthy vetting program for all refugees, and the refugee admissions program has the widest latitude of all programs for denial of entry. While the Director of USCIS, Director of the FBI, and the Secretary of DHS have all given congressional testimony indicating that there are systemic limitations on vetting — specifically that databases can’t tell us anything if someone isn’t already in the database — that is not the same thing a no capability for vetting. The Intelligence Community is not limited exclusively to database checks for vetting, and the refugee officers that interview refugee applicants are trained in deception detection, as are the supervisors that review the interviews. Because of the latitude given, something as slim as a minor conflict in an applicant’s story (which he has to provide to at least two other entities before meeting with the USCIS refugee officer) can result in a denial of their application. Keep in mind that there are about 4.5 externally displaced refugees from Syria, and we are looking to allow less than 100,000 of them resettle to the US in the near term — less than 0.01% of the refugee population. We are being very selective about who we admit.

Syria Complex Emergency Map — 02–04–2016

As far as security goes, immigrant populations (including undocumented immigrants) do not commit crimes at a higher proportion than natural-born US citizens. In fact, they tend to commit fewer crimes as a percentage of the population. You are still far more likely to be injured or killed by a non-immigrant than by an immigrant, regardless of how they arrived. There is no indication that resettled refugees are committing a disproportionate number of crimes, or even a number of any significance at all.

There is quite simply no perspective that allows a rational argument against assisting refugees. They do not create budgetary conflicts for US-focused social programs, they are not a drain on the economy, they are thoroughly vetted prior to admission, and they are not responsible for any significant amount of crime. Let’s stop demonizing people who need help around the world, and instead continue to actively open our doors to those most in need.

  • 24 January 2017 Update, with embedded sources:

    The overwhelming majority of terrorist activity is in places such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Nigeria according to the most recent Global Terrorism Index. The odds of being injured or killed by a refugee of any kind in ridiculously minuscule, and to date I am unaware of any confirmed instances of a Syrian refugee brought in due to the current crisis being involved in any manner of terrorism. I have been particularly appalled by the continued lies by Donald Trump with regard to the vetting process for Syrian refugees specifically, in fact claiming that there is no process. (The new administration is clearly planning to perpetuate this fallacy, based on the press secretary’s statement that they “would work on the vetting process” once the new Secretary of State is confirmed.) Having worked with USICS, I can assure you all that there is a thorough vetting process, and that there is wide latitude for refusing entry. Considering that there are about 4.8 million externally displaced and 6.6 million internally displaced Syrian refugees and that our plans have been to admit them in the tens of thousands, it is intuitively obvious that we are being selective.

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David Mcdonald

David is the founder of The Global Millennial: a think-tank millennials a platform to freely express their ideas on the world.