US Refugee Resettlement Under Attack

Following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, 30 US governors demanded that President Obama stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees to their states. Unsurprisingly, federal judges have ruled these demands unconstitutional. Since then, Members of Congress, state legislators, and governors have changed course and attempted to curtail refugee resettlement using sweeping legislation and executive orders that could damage the resettlement program for years to come.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has also taken an anti-constitutional stand on this issue, saying that he would prevent Syrian refugees from entering the country and deport Syrians who are already in the United States. He has even proposed to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country.

Meanwhile, the global need for refugee resettlement is at a historically high level. The United Nations stated last year that more people have been forced from their homes because of war, persecution, or natural disaster than at any other time since the organization began keeping detailed records. In response, the UN has called on member states to resettle a total of 450,000 Syrian refugees by 2018.

The current political rhetoric and legislative attempts in the United States are nearly all unconstitutional, ignore reality, and threaten to weaken the country’s position as a global leader in refugee resettlement. Most importantly, a weaker US refugee resettlement system could undermine global efforts to address the worsening Syrian refugee crisis. Instead of curtailing its resettlement program, the United States needs to reaffirm its historical commitment to refugee resettlement and welcome refugees regardless of their country of origin, race or religion.

The need for US leadership

Now, more than ever, the United States should lead by example by significantly increasing the number of refugees it resettles. President Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by October 2016 is inadequate to meet the immense need for resettlement. Similarly, the administration’s plan to increase overall annual admissions of refugees from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017 falls substantially short of meeting global need.

It is important to note that the United States and the international community regard refugees as a special class of migrants who deserve specific protection by their host country. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol define a refugee as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This international commitment to protecting refugees places further urgency on the United States to increase its level of support.

Countries near Syria have taken the lead in welcoming refugees displaced by the civil war. Currently 640,000 Syrian refugees reside in Jordan and there are 2.6 million in Turkey. Additionally, refugees from Syria now make up 20 percent of Lebanon’s total population. The lack of international support, including insufficient refugee resettlement, has only made the pressure on these countries worse and the living conditions for these refugees more dire.

Importantly, increasing refugee resettlement to the United States would not only relieve the strain on these refugees and the countries they reside in, but it would also advance the United States’ national security interests. A group of former national security leaders and government officials agree with this important role for resettlement and recently wrote in a letter to Congress that, “resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.”

Attempts to limit the US resettlement program

Recent attempts to limit the refugee resettlement program began with statements by 30 governors in November 2015 calling on President Obama to stop resettling Syrian refugees to their states. Among these 30 governors, 23 claimed that they would take executive action to either deny Syrian refugees entry to their states or deny services to Syrians already in the state. [1] Soon after the governors made these statements it became clear that they did not have the constitutional authority for either of these demands.

In Texas, for example, a federal judge struck down Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order denying entry to Syrian refugees.[2] Additionally, a federal district court judge struck down Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s executive order to deny reimbursement to refugee resettlement agencies in the state for services provided to Syrian refugees.[3] In fact, a very limited number of Syrian refugees were ever actually re-directed to a different state as a result of these 23 governors’ statements.

Following these unsuccessful attempts to limit resettlement, state and federal lawmakers have responded by introducing legislation to limit the program. State legislators have introduced bills and resolutions that would 1) prohibit their respective state governments from assisting in the resettlement of refugees from Syria and/or the Middle East, 2) require refugees to register with a government agency, 3) authorize the state to temporarily halt refugee resettlement, or 4) urge Congress to take action limiting the resettlement of Syrian refugees or the resettlement of all refugees.

In addition to these attempts at the state level, members of Congress have introduced a variety of bills at the federal level that seek to limit resettlement. These attempts include measures such as increasing the standards governing security checks of refugees, reducing resettlement from Syria and other countries in the Middle East, or reducing overall levels of resettlement. Fortunately, none of these bills have passed through the state legislatures or Congress.

These attempts are against American values and contradict reality.

Any bill or executive order that explicitly denies entry or services to refugees from a specific country will likely be ruled unconstitutional. Attempts to limit resettlement as a whole, on the other hand, are within the bounds of the constitution. However, these attempts run counter to reality and threaten to weaken the country’s position as a global leader in refugee resettlement.

First, many of these bills are based on the premise that refugees from the Middle East pose a significant security threat to the United States. Reality contradicts this belief. Of the 784,000 refugees that the United States has resettled since September 11, 2001, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activitiestwo of which were not planning an attack in the United States.

One key reason for this strong record is the rigorous security screening process that every refugee undergoes before entering the United States. The process takes 1824 months for each refugee, during which the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department and national intelligence agencies check refugees’ biometric data against security databases. Additionally, it is highly unlikely that the refugees who are fleeing war and persecution are supporters of terrorism. If they were, they would have stayed in their countries to fight.

Second, these proposals threaten to undermine the country’s leadership in refugee resettlement. The United States has historically resettled more refugees than all other countries combined. For example, of the 105,200 refugees who were resettled globally in 2014, the United States resettled 73,000.

However, there are signs that the country’s commitment to maintaining this leadership role has been wavering. A 2008 analysis by a national voluntary agency, for example, found that the federal government now only contributes 39 percent of the total cost of supporting newly resettled refugees during their first 90 days in the country.[4] This reduction of federal support, along with declining political support for the program from many state legislators and governors, could ultimately result in drastic cuts to the refugee resettlement program.

The way forward

The United States needs to reverse this wavering commitment. The country should reaffirm its position as a global leader in refugee resettlement by significantly increasing the number of refugeesparticularly Syrian refugeesit resettles. The Administration and Congress can achieve this goal by increasing the annual refugee resettlement ceiling to above 100,000, devoting more resources and prioritization to the Refugee Admissions Program, and increasing access to resettlement to particularly vulnerable refugees. In doing so, the United States would live up to its humanitarian ideals by providing protection from violence and persecution to thousands more of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Keith Welch is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and previously worked in refugee resettlement. He is a Research Assistant at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society,

[1] Governors who actively sought to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.

[2] Texas Health and Human Services Commission v. United States of America, Et Al. United States District Court, Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division. 9 Dec. 2015. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

[3] Order,  Exodus Refugee Immigration, Inc. v. Mike Pence. United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. 29 Feb. 2016. N.p., n.d.

[4] Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "The Real Cost of Welcome." 2008. Web. 10 Feb. 2016 . http://lirs.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/RPTREALCOSTWELCOME.pdf