These comments are available in full as a pdf here.

RE: Notice of Public Comments on FY 2017 U.S. Refugee Admissions Program
Submitted: May 19, 2016

Mr. Simon Henshaw
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520
Submitted via:

Dear Secretary Henshaw,

The Niskanen Center submits the following comments in response to the request for public comment on the Department of State’s FY 2017 U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 81 Fed. Reg., 23544. (April 21, 2016).

The Niskanen Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public interest organization dedicated to advancing a freer society. The Niskanen Center advocates in particular for the rights of Americans to associate more freely with people from the countries. This comment argues that citizens of the United States ought to be allowed to increase the number of refugees admitted to the country by donating money to cover the costs of admission and calls for the creation of a privately funded refugee resettlement pilot program in FY 2017.[i]

We are grateful for the opportunity to comment on the refugee program. We trust the Niskanen Center’s unique perspective will be useful to the department as it plans the Refugee Admissions Program for fiscal year 2017.


In its notice, the Department of State (DoS) invited comments from the public on “the appropriate size and scope of the FY 2017 U.S. Refugee Admissions Program” (USRAP).[ii] President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have indicated that the refugee target for fiscal year 2017 will be 100,000—an increase of 15,000 over FY 2016’s target.[iii] The following comments assume DoS will adopt the proposed refugee target of 100,000 for FY 2017 and will refer to it throughout as “DoS’s proposed target for FY 2017.”

The Niskanen Center strongly supports expanding the refugee program in 2017. However, there is no compelling legal or practical reason to limit it to 100,000 people. Since 1991, DoS on average has authorized the admission of 0.25 percent of the worldwide population of refugees. DoS’s proposed target for FY 2017 falls far below this average. Historical precedent alone argues for expanding the refugee program significantly. The massive scale and urgency of the current refugee crisis argues for admitting as many refugees as the available funds and personnel can safely support.

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The administration has indicated that its determination of the refugee admission cap is constrained by the anticipated level of congressional funding.[iv] Congress appropriates funds for benefits and services that refugees receive from DoS as well as from the Department of Health and the Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The funds for refugee interviews come from fees on immigrant petitions administered by the Immigration Examinations Fee Account (IEFA) at the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The availability of funds in this account may also be seen to limit the expansion of USRAP.

However, it is critical to recognize that the administration is free to determine the admissions level independently of the anticipated level of congressional funding for refugees. Moreover, no legal authority requires DoS, ORR, or USCIS to rely exclusively on congressional appropriations or fees to carry out their legal duties under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Private sector resources may lawfully supplement congressional appropriations as long as they are utilized pursuant to congressional statute. In fact, the Refugee Act of 1980 specifically requires ORR to incorporate private resources into its resettlement plans and clearly envisions DoS integrating private resources into its admissions target calculations.

Ideally, the DoS should reevaluate its refugee target for FY 2017 to incorporate any private money that the agencies can raise for the purposes of supporting refugee admissions. However, there is no mechanism by which the private sector can contribute funds to them in a transparent way that DoS can take easily into account when setting admissions targets. In light of this fact, the Niskanen Center recommends DoS create a reserve of refugee numbers that will be used only upon the availability of private sector funds to support those admissions. There is precedent for this approach. DoS created and utilized a privately funded reserve during the 1980s and 1990s to increase refugee admissions, and its relevant authorities under the INA have not changed.

The simplest approach would be for DoS, ORR, and USCIS to create accounts into which philanthropists can donate to fund further resettlement.[v] Each agency would create a threshold amount needed to fund a single admission. If philanthropists—individually or collectively—donate enough to cover all three agencies’ thresholds, then a new admission would be triggered for the coming fiscal year. Greater sums of private sector donations would unlock greater number of refugee admissions slots, providing a powerful incentive for generous private sector support. DoS would coordinate this fundraising with the voluntary resettlement agencies that would be responsible for resettling the refugees.

Privately funding refugees does not require any changes to current refugee program procedures or admissions processes. Private funds would simply enable the admission of additional refugees referred to the United States pursuant to the normal process by the United Nations or a Non-Governmental Organization, or refugees who have applied under the Priority 2 or Priority 3 process. It is important to note that refugees who are privately funded would not receive inequitable treatment in services or benefits upon resettlement. The only difference between privately and publicly funded admissions would be the source of the funding.

The Niskanen Center recognizes that DoS has less than six months before the start of FY 2017 to evaluate and implement a private program. In light of the timeline, the Niskanen Center recommends that DoS implement a pilot program with the goal of using private funds to resettle 12 refugee families—one family per month or roughly 60 individuals—in FY 2017. These admissions should be additional to DoS’s publicly funded target, augmenting the size of USRAP rather than helping the department reach its already stated target. A modest pilot program allows the department to demonstrate the viability and potential of the privately funded model as well as implement the procedural and accounting mechanism required for full-scale implementation.

Read the full comments here.

[i] This comment expands on this paper: David Bier and Matthew La Corte. “Privately Funded Refugee Resettlement: How to Leverage American Charity to Resettle Refugees.” Niskanen Center. March 22, 2016.

[ii] Department of State. “Notice of Public Comments on FY 2017 U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.” April 21, 2016.

[iii] Dipnote Bloggers. “Secretary Kerry Announces U.S. Will Increase Refugee Resettlement Numbers.” Department of State. September 20, 2015.

Glenn Kessler. “Repeat after me: Obama is not admitting 100,000, 200,000 or 250,000 Syrian refugees.” Washington Post. November 18, 2015.

[iv] State Department: “At the State Department, in terms of resources, we know it will take more to bring in 85,000. We are looking across our programs to see where we can gain efficiencies.”

DHS: “Having spoken to our chief financial officer, he has informed us that there is sufficient funding in what is called our Immigration Examination Fee Account to cover 85,000 anticipated admissions in FY 2016 by reprioritizing between programs.”

[v] This approach is elaborated in: David Bier and Matthew La Corte. “Privately Funded Refugee Resettlement: How to Leverage American Charity to Resettle Refugees.” Niskanen Center. March 22, 2016. Available at: