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Focus on refugee resettlement ‘success’ to enhance debate

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This might not seem a propitious time to suggest an approach on refugee issues that could unite security hardliners and humanitarians.

The immigration debate is fierce. Despite popular support for a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” action on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is caught on partisan barbed wire.

{mosads}Refugee resettlement is also a proxy for squabbling politicians, buffeted by a dramatic (but unfunded) increase in the annual ceiling under President Obama and a dramatic (but not well substantiated) decrease under President Trump.


If the ceiling for annual refugee arrivals is our sole focus, both sides will remain entrenched and irreconcilable. 

A more useful metric — one that could restore the former consensus that security and humanitarian goals are worthy and mutually reinforcing — is that of refugee success.

As part of a research project at Yale’s Jackson Institute last fall, my students heard from a diverse group of experts about what constitutes resettlement “success.” 

Every instance where the United States offers refuge to someone who faces persecution has value, of course. The resettlement program saves people who face circumstances more terrible than the average American can imagine.

But we should demand more. Resettlement to the United States, unlike asylum in some other countries, puts a refugee on a path to fully join our national community, eligible to acquire permanent residence in a year and citizenship five years after. Its consequence is to create new Americans.

Shielding refugees from immediate harm, then, is worthy but insufficient. We should also ensure that those we resettle can build lives of dignity and that their presence is beneficial to the United States.  

In our field work, our Yale research team discovered there is more common ground at local levels than in our national discourse.

Law enforcement personnel understand that refugees who thrive in their new American communities are not any more likely to join gangs, commit crimes or support terrorist activity than Americans generally.

Humanitarian workers want host communities to feel confident that resettled refugees are committed to becoming patriotic Americans.

State and local planners work to unlock refugee potential, not least because it contributes to economic growth and reduces the need for social service expenditures.

And resettlement system officials acknowledge the need for smart reforms, although they fear that those opposed to immigration will weaponize any implied criticism.

Our team witnessed creative refugee programming, including targeted education services, police outreach efforts and intentional spaces for community integration.

It reinforced the importance of getting resettled refugees off to a good start, including:

  • emphasizing English language acquisition, especially for working adults and young adults who time out of public schools;
  • enhancing cultural orientation programs so they provide expanded practical advice and more extensive American civics content; and
  • ensuring refugees don’t feel trapped in insular linguistic/ethnic enclaves. 

We also need to improve data flow, both from pre-resettlement places of origin to American community officials (e.g., providing schools with more background on incoming students) and among federal, state and local administrators.  

Some improvements would have resource implications, but smart reform would yield security, economic, civic and humanitarian benefits.

At a time when annual resettlement admissions are in decline, it may even be easier to implement reforms now. Administrators should at least consider establishing a pilot program, soliciting input from a wide range of stakeholders.  

Like Thanksgiving dinner table squabbles, our national debate over refugees too often features ill-defined terms, passionate moral claims and no possibility of a universally acknowledged winner. Unlike those arguments, however, its policy consequences ensnare real people (and the debate has none of the moderating influence of family ties or tryptophan). 

One way to refocus the national conversation would be to define more specifically and measure more comprehensively the success of resettlement efforts to turn refugees into fellow citizens.

A more holistic metric could help us identify areas for reform and promising programs that deserve to be replicated. It may even offer us a way to evaluate dispassionately how many refugees we should resettle every year. 

Joseph Cassidy is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a distinguished visiting fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law. He lectured at Yale University’s Jackson Institute in the fall of 2017.

Tags Demography Donald Trump Forced migration refugees Refugees of the Syrian Civil War Right of asylum Third country resettlement United States Refugee Admissions Program

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