Statement for the Record of the Niskanen Center
Submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee
“Oversight of the Administration’s FY 2017 Refugee Resettlement Program”
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
The Niskanen Center is a libertarian 501(c)(3) nonprofit think tank founded in 2014 and located in Washington D.C.
The Niskanen Center fully supports President Obama’s refugee resettlement plan that would increase admissions to 110,000 refugees in FY 2017. We applaud the administration for increasing the cap by 40,000 refugees in three years. However, since the global refugee population exceeds 21 million, and the number of displaced individuals hovers around 65 million, the United States has an obligation to do much more to provide safe haven to those fleeing persecution and war.
This statement outlines the humanitarian, economic, and national security cases for refugee resettlement and concludes with potential reforms to improve the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
The Case for Resettlement
The global refugee population is at its highest point since World War II. The world is facing the worst displacement crisis in recorded history, with more than 65 million displaced persons, 51% of whom are children.
If the U.S. wants to maintain its unique global authority and leadership, we must respond decisively to the crisis and do more to address the massive increase in refugees seeking resettlement. We must preserve our traditions as a welcoming nation, ready and willing to offer a second chance at life to those fleeing persecution. The values that make America special—openness, tolerance, compassion—guide us in determining how to respond to a global catastrophe.
At the epicenter of the global refugee crisis is Syria, where the bombings of maternity hospitals and medical facilities is commonplace. Our commitment to international laws and norms, and our humanity, should compels us as a nation to provide refuge to those fleeing the same war and violence we condemn. As the New York Times surmised: today Anne Frank is a young Syrian girl. We must do all we can to provide the lost generation of Syrians, and other refugees across the globe, the opportunity to live a normal life once again.
Of all refugees worldwide, just one percent are resettled. And of that one percent, a quarter make it to the United States. With a population of 320 million and the world’s most powerful economy, the U.S. must demonstrate a more robust commitment to increasing its capacity to resettle refugees equal to its capacity to do so.
There is not just a moral case for resettlement, but an economic case as well. Multiple studies conclude that refugees, once they get on their feet after resettlement, contribute to the American economy. Refugees earn and spend money, boosting local economic activity. They start businesses, make investments, launch new cultural and religious institutions, and more.
Many refugees are highly educated and skilled, and will contribute to numerous sectors of the economy. Programs that re-certify refugees for the occupations they were employed in originally further optimize refugee talent.
Refugees bolster flagging populations, expand tax bases, and launch scores of small businesses, transforming once desolate areas into thriving neighborhoods. Cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville, and Baltimore recruit and empower refugees in order to inject new life into declining neighborhoods. Resettling families displaced by war is compassionate, but it’s also a smart way to give America’s cities a renewed jolt of energy.
A report examining 500,000 refugees during their first decade in America found that they integrated soundly in terms of language skills, educational attainment, home ownership, wage growth, and more. After a decade, it’s difficult to ascertain whether your neighbor is a refugee or an American born citizen. Plus, child refugees and the children of refugees integrate even more successfully and completely into American society.
In addition to speedy integration, there are demographic concerns that refugees can help invigorate. Sixty-two percent of the Syrian refugees who arrived in 2016 are less than twenty years old, infusing our aging populations with youth and labor to bolster contributions to our flagging entitlement programs.
Certainly, protecting our own national security is a vital interest that cannot be compromised. The refugee screening process is the most rigorous screening standard for any U.S. entrant, and is vigorously defended by the intelligence community. Madeline Albright, Henry Kissinger, David Petraeus, George Schultz, and many others, recently came together to affirm that the screening process is “robust and thorough,” and confirmed that “resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national security interests.” They continued, “categorically refusing to take [refugees] only feeds the narrative of ISIS […] and would undermine our core objective of combating terrorism.” They concluded that keeping refugees out of the United States, “would be contrary to our nation’s traditions of openness and inclusivity.”
Refugee resettlement is an integral part of our humanity and the values our of our nation. Refugees make our country a better, more prosperous place, and each new wave of refugees–from the Vietnamese to the former Soviets, to Cubans and Syrians–contribute to the social fabric of the nation.
Improving the Resettlement Program
The U.S. has welcomed more than 3 million refugees since 1975. Three reforms to the resettlement process can increase refugee capacity, jumpstart refugee integration once refugees are here, and make the refugee vetting process more efficient.
Private Refugee Sponsorship
Private refugee sponsorship, in which the private sector more directly funds and carries out resettlement, has the ability to increase the U.S. capacity for admissions. This approach has been highly successful and is celebrated as a model for nations around the world. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has urged nations to adopt private sponsorship of refugees as an “innovative way to increase opportunities for refugees.”
Nations including Germany and Australia responded to this call by instituting their own versions of private sponsorship programs. Canada’s private sponsorship program is an established and successful model from which the U.S. can learn. This year, Canada has resettled nearly 15,000 refugees using fully or partially private funding. The U.S. should launch a private sponsorship program to soak up the interest, energy, and compassion from the private sector to help refugees.
Occupational Licensing for Refugees
Many refugees have valuable education, job training, and work experience. However, restrictive occupational licensing laws block refugees from taking similar jobs in some states in the U.S. States minimize the burden on immigrants and refugees with work authorization and skills, allowing them to work in occupations regardless of their immigration status.
Increasing Refugee Screening Efficiency
In their latest report to Congress, the State Department concludes that by “surging and co-locating staff,” the U.S. was able to significantly reduce the time between steps in the refugee screening process. Reducing the wait time, which averages between 18-24 months, while maintaining full security measures, lessens the emotional trauma of being a refugee. The U.S. should look to further address the staffing concerns and seek to reduce all inefficiencies in the screening process.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, June 20, 2016.
 UNHCR, July 2014. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/53b69f574.html.