Refugees deserve support in America, not just a home

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On World Refugee Day, The Hill published a Contributors piece by the libertarian Cato Institute’s immigration policy analyst, Alex Nowrasteh, headlined, “The US should be a home for refugees.” In it, he offers a brief history of refugee policy and flows into the United States over the past century and suggests that the United States “should … allow more to settle here.” That’s a noble sentiment, but the headline is misleading because it leaves out the substance of what Nowrasteh proposes in order to help make this happen. In short, Nowrasteh wants to welcome more refugees to the United States but proposes abandoning them and letting them fend for themselves once they get here.

{mosads}2014 was a record-breaking year in terms of the number of refugees fleeing persecution worldwide — 14 million — which includes the humanitarian disaster in Syria, where 4 million of its citizens have left the territory. The current global framework for protecting refugees and managing refugee flows was not designed to handle so many vulnerable populations of such magnitude. The United Nations’s lead agency for protecting refugees, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugee, is underfunded and understaffed, but their efforts have been valiant.

When it comes to Syrian refugees in particular, there is no denying that the exodus the civil war in their home country has caused presents the world with a stark challenge. Turkey and Lebanon have done the heavy lifting — each is currently hosting over 1 million Syrian refugees — along with Jordan, which is hosting over 600,000. But such a large population of refugees is straining local infrastructures in these countries, and all are responding by making it more difficult for refugees to enter and stay.

China and the prosperous gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, have shamefully accepted very few, if any, Syrian refugees, while Egypt and Iraq combined host nearly 400,000. Russia hosts thousands, but many are treated poorly and not granted asylum. The developed world, and especially Europe, should step up and commit to accepting more Syrian refugees. However, the EU is mostly distracted wrestling with how best to deter African and Middle Eastern refugees from arriving on its shores. So far, only a handful of countries are doing their part.

In the United States, fewer than 1,000 Syrians have been granted asylum since the war began, although plans have been announced to take in a few thousand more in the near future. The Obama administration deserves credit for issuing “temporary protected status” (TPS), a form of humanitarian immigration relief, to about 2,600 Syrians in the country so far. The U.S. government can and should do more, but it also faces challenges on multiple fronts.

The existence of quasi-failed states in Central America — which in no small part were created by the failed “war on drugs” and decades of American policies in the region that supported oligarchs and military coups — mean the United States will have to find a way to manage tens of thousands of refugees and economic migrants who will continue to arrive on the southern U.S. border for years to come. Rather than sensibly hiring more immigration judges to process unauthorized migrants from Central America in a timely fashion and to determine whether they are entitled to any form of humanitarian relief, it appears the United States is bullying Mexico into detaining and deporting the Central Americans attempting to transit its territory, including thousands of children.

None of the world’s major refugee flows — including from Syria, Africa and Central America — will abate anytime soon. The United States, EU and the rest of the developed world must do more to address the root causes of these flows as well as simultaneously come up with durable solutions that include viable integration strategies.

Therefore, I commend Nowrasteh for highlighting the global challenge our civilization faces when it comes to protecting refugees. But a separate question is how refugees should be treated once they are granted asylum and legal permanent residence by the U.S. government. The main policy proposal in Nowrasteh’s column seeks to address this, but what he puts forth shocks the conscience, especially coming from someone who purports to care about the plight of refugees. Nowrasteh believes that “more strict denials of means-tested welfare or blocking it entirely for refugees can speed up integration.” Nowrasteh is worried about U.S. taxpayers being “forced to foot the bill” for helping refugees and ultimately complains that “[r]efugees have access to some means-tested welfare benefits before other immigrants do; that should end.” Instead, “[c]hurches, charities and mutual aid associations should fulfill that responsibility.”

While we all want refugees in the United States to be economically self-sufficient, it is safe to assume that most refugees need some form of public assistance for a time. They have either just arrived from a country that is war-torn or where they were being persecuted and usually escape with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Part of America’s responsibility to refugees includes helping them integrate into society and the labor market.

Approximately half of the refugees in the United States receive some form of cash assistance, about three-fourths get food stamps, one-fifth live in public housing and half get Medicaid. Yes, that imposes a cost on American taxpayers, but it is a worthwhile investment because it helps refugees integrate into the labor market: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that “refugees are entering the work force at a fairly high rate and continue to maintain an employment rate that is not dramatically lower than that of the general U.S. population.”

This has to be qualified with the fact that on average, the wages refugees earn are relatively low, but that is likely because many refugees cannot yet speak English proficiently and are learning to navigate a new country while also having to compete in a labor market where a quarter of all jobs are low-wage. Nevertheless, refugees eventually improve their earnings — and Nowrasteh correctly makes this point by citing a study finding that refugees who entered the United States between 1975 and 1980 earned 20 percent more by 1990. For some reason, though, he neglects to mention that those refugees had access to general public assistance programs, as well as much more generous refugee-specific assistance than is available today. For example, the Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1980s benefited from three years of cash and medical assistance, which was a “contributing factor to the[ir] long-term economic success,” as noted in a Congressional Research Service report. Today’s refugees only get eight months of this assistance before they have to turn to general anti-poverty programs for support.

Nowrasteh’s proposal amounts to this: Refugees will do better if they don’t have any access to cash assistance or food stamps because they will have no choice but to find a job or starve. But cutting benefits to refugees will not create more living-wage jobs. And forcing refugees to be destitute if they can’t find a decent-paying job is not a valid, humane or even rational refugee integration strategy.

Besides the fact that Nowrasteh’s proposal ignores the basic needs of refugees striving to integrate, it is also likely to be inconsistent with international law. Article 23 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which the United States is a party, requires that refugees be treated the same as the nationals of the country they reside in “with respect to public relief and assistance.” Passing laws that deny public assistance to refugees when it would otherwise be available to similarly situated Americans violates U.S. treaty obligations. The United States not only has a moral obligation to help feed and house poor refugees but also a legal one.

Nowrasteh apparently believes that denying food and shelter to refugees who cannot afford them will motivate them to work harder and earn higher wages. This could not be any further from the truth. It is far more difficult to find a job or search for a better job if one is homeless, sick or starving. Nowrasteh and the Cato Institute offer up a delusional proposal; hopefully refugees in America will never be forced to suffer their libertarian version of humanitarian relief.

Costa is the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. You can follow him on Twitter @costadaniel.

Tags Department of Health and Human Services Egypt HHS Iraq Office of Refugee Resettlement Qatar Refugee Russia Saudi Arabia Syria Temporary protected status TPS U.N. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugee UAE UNHCR United Arab Emirates United Nations

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