Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced its plan to admit 110,000 refugees into the United States during fiscal year 2017. Immediately following the announcement, Representative Sam Graves (R-MO) hastily introduced a bill intended to choke off funding for the plan. As written, the bill betrays a limited understanding of the laws governing our refugee resettlement program.
Rep. Graves’s office declares in a press release that the bill will “deny Obama the funds needed to implement this plan or any other refugee increase extending into the next Presidential administration.” But the bill, if it were to pass, would not actually limit spending on refugee resettlement. To understand why, we need to understand precisely how Congress makes appropriations to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was established as part of the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980 by the Refugee Act, which amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The Refugee Act of 1980 not only established the ORR, but also established a number of the Office’s most important programs, namely: (1) Transitional and Medical Services, (2) Social Services, (3) Preventive Health, and (4) Targeted Assistance.
Finally, the legislation authorized Congress to make appropriations for the first three years of these programs. Congress renewed its own authorization to make appropriations for these four programs every few years until 2002, when it allowed authorization to lapse. Still, Congress has exercised its right to waive its traditional appropriations rules, choosing to continue funding these programs each year. This is all normal; about a tenth of all of Congress’s spending is on programs that do not have separate and explicit authorizing legislation.
So far so good.
But the ORR runs more programs than just those four. Other programs are under its control under authorization by other acts, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998, and the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
Altogether, to run each of the constituent programs that fall under ‘refugee and entrant assistance,’ the ORR spends about $2 billion a year. In 2016, it required just over $1.67 billion, and is requesting just under $2.2 billion for 2017.
So what does Rep. Graves’s bill actually do and how is it related to all of this? Specifically, it amends Title IV of the INA to reauthorize appropriations and then limits those appropriations to $1.192 billion a year.
But Title IV covers only those first four programs, which cost about $800 million a year—well below his proposed $1.192 billion authorization limit. And because he is only amending the authorization for that chapter of the U.S. Code, appropriations toward programs authorized by other legislation in other chapters remain untouched.
To put it simply: Rep. Graves’s bill, designed to stick it to the Obama administration and cut spending on refugee resettlement, actually authorizes Congress to spend more on refugee resettlement than the administration requested.
This could be an amusing lesson about the complexity of the appropriations process if the intentions (if not the text) of H.R. 6044 were not so contrary to American traditions of openness to those in need. The proposed 2017 cap is not an unprecedented hike. On the contrary, it falls below half of the number of refugees welcomed annually at the modern refugee program’s inception in 1980. And back when the cap was more than twice as high, there were millions fewer refugees worldwide.
It is true that the cap has been much lower for the last decade than it was when the program began, and than it was in the 1990s. But that is not because we’ve come to learn some previously unrecognized dangers of refugees. It is because there were fewer refugees across the world in the 2000s than there were in the 1990s, or than there are today. Now, with the number of refugees back up, it is only in line with the traditions of our refugee program to widen the program and raise the cap.
H.R. 6044 is not just a bill that would utterly fail to do what its author intends; it is a bill that represents intentions contrary to the open spirit of our country and its long history of welcoming refugees. It is a bill which ought to be summarily rejected or withdrawn.