As President Obama prepares to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, some Republicans in Congress are working to deny him the necessary appropriations, arguing that the U.S. is simply too strapped for cash. This has pitted those who view the crisis through a humanitarian lens against those focused on the financial logistics. But key members of Congress – and a number of prominent national groups – have already endorsed an idea that has proved successful in the past: let charities cover the costs of admitting the refugees.
Private refugee sponsorship would appease Republicans in Congress who worry that the U.S. doesn't have the means to admit the refugees, while granting those refugees the opportunity to build their lives in a free, democratic society.
America leads the world in private philanthropy but can only resettle as many refugees as the government allows under the current taxpayer-financed framework of support. It doesn’t have to be this way. Until 1980, charities resettled most refugees without taxpayer support, and two programs in the 1980s and 90s resettled more than 16,000 refugees under a special program for those who received only private support.
According to the OECD, the first-year cost to resettle 10,000 refugees would be roughly $100 million--excluding the cost of overseas security screening, which is funded by fees gathered from other immigration applications. As refugees move toward self-sufficiency, these costs quickly fall. Even if the two-year costs tally up to $200 million, consider that Americans donated more than three times that amount following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
There is no reason to believe that the private response to the Syrian refugee crisis would be any less generous. Lawrence Bartlett, Director in the Office of Refugee Admissions at the State Department, recently testified at a Senate hearing, saying, “the Department of State has received an outpouring of interest from individuals, churches, and community organizations wishing to help with Syrian refugee resettlement.”
In response to the current crisis, a long list of companies, including Goldman Sachs, Western Union, H&M, UPS, Tripadvisor, Audi, and JPMorgan, have already donated tens of millions of dollars to help refugees in the squalid camps overseas. Google alone has contributed $11 million to this effort. Once companies and individuals are able to not simply sustain refugees in poverty, but to bring them out of it in America, donations will likely run into the hundreds of millions.
Policymakers can look to past successful programs for models. From 1987 to 1995, more than 8,000 refugees from Cuba, Iran, and Ethiopia were resettled by the Private Sector Initiative, which paid the processing, travel, medical care, and resettlement for refugees. In 1990, a similar program resettled 8,000 Soviet Jews. Under these programs, refugees had no access to welfare programs or other federal assistance.
Our neighbors to the north have pioneered this idea over almost four decades. Since 1978, Canada’s private sponsorship program sponsored more than 230,000 refugees. Between January 2014 and August 2015, it resettled more than half of Canada’s Syrian refugees. Despite being a tenth of the size of the U.S., Canada has already resettled more Syrians through private philanthropy than the U.S. government has with taxpayer funds.
The Canadian immigration services find that privately sponsored refugees become self-supporting more quickly than government-sponsored refugees. What’s more, Canada has reported no cases of Syrian refugees with terrorist ties--a fact that should ease concerns that admitting Syrian refugees will expose the U.S. to potential terrorists.
Key members of Congress have already expressed interest in private refugee sponsorship. Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonA pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Sen. Ron Johnson hoping for Democratic 'gridlock' on reconciliation package Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, endorsed the idea last month. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary subcommittee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat on its immigration subcommittee, issued a joint statement advocating programs to “encourage private funding to support resettlement efforts.”
But the president need not wait for Congress to act. Under current law, he can create a new category for privately funded refugees and empower the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees to enter into Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with U.S.-based charities. The MOUs would require charities to cover the full cost of refugee support for two years or until the refugee becomes self-sufficient, whichever comes first.
During this time, refugees would be excluded from public benefits. Sponsors would arrange and finance housing, food, and social support for refugees. The federal government would still conduct its extensive security and health checks and approve all prospective refugees, but private philanthropy would take it from there.
If the president fails to act, however, congressional appropriators should create the option themselves in the coming appropriations package in December.
America is a rich country. We can afford to support refugees, publicly or privately. But if cost to taxpayers is the issue, Republicans should champion private sponsorship as a way to deal humanely and thriftily with the refugee crisis. Americans want to help – and will help – if our government lets us.
Bier is the director of Immigration Policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian nonprofit in D.C. La Corte is an analyst at Niskanen.