What Should the U.S. Do About Refugee Resettlement?

The nation takes in far fewer refugees than its counterparts around the world. Even so, amid fears about national security, the issue is more politically contentious than ever.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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The Syrian refugee crisis has called into question how nations should address the millions of embattled people fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries.

In the United States, Democrats and Republicans have gone head to head on how to approach the situation. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has said the United States should welcome refugees, while Bernie Sanders has called on the international community to respond, along with the U.S.

And, on the Republican front, Donald Trump has made it clear that Syrian refugees are not America’s problem, and he and other Republicans are against them being admitted to the country altogether. Ted Cruz has called for halting the entry of refugees “from countries with significant Al Qaeda or ISIS presence” following attacks in Brussels.

The crisis has also shaped up to be a sticky issue in Congress: The House introduced a bill to curb the number of refugees from Iraq and Syria admitted to the United States; Senate Democrats blocked the bill.

Meanwhile, as the heated debate persists, the ongoing global crisis remains unresolved. The United Nations has deemed it the worst refugee crisis since World War II. And the plight of desperate migrants trying to leave their countries of origin—often under perilous circumstances—has been documented, and refugee photos have circulated around the world, inspiring many people to action. So how should the United States respond?


To start, the U.S. needs to identify who is qualified to come into the country.


What does it mean to be a refugee? And how does one qualify to come to the United States?

As explained by the United Nations refugee agency, refugees “have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.” A report by the agency puts the number of people forcibly displaced around the world at nearly 60 million at the end of 2014—an increase from around 51 million a year earlier.

Why the spike? The staggering numbers are attributed to several conflicts, above all the war in Syria. In fact, out of the more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees, just 18,000 have been referred by the United Nations refugee agency for “possible settlement in the United States,” which has had a resettlement program in place since 1975. Since then, the U.S. has admitted more than 3 million refugees.

The criteria for U.S. admittance includes meeting the definition of a “refugee” per the government, as well as being “among those refugees determined by the President to be of special humanitarian concern in the United States; not be firmly resettled in any third country; be otherwise admissible under U.S. laws.”

There are grounds that can exclude a refugee from coming to the United States, too, such as health issues, criminal activity, and other security matters like espionage and terrorist activity. Though cases often vary, the process can take up to 18 months.

In fiscal year 2016, the United States will admit 85,000 refugees from Near East and South Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin American and the Caribbean. Of that number, at least 10,000 will be from Syria.


That’s still a considerable number of refugees being admitted into the U.S. Perhaps too many. Instead, host countries in the region should take in the majority.


How does the United States compare with other countries around the world in the sheer number of refugees admitted? Last year, the White House pledged to receive at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have taken in many of the registered Syrian refugees. And the United Kingdom has committed to accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced in September that the U.S. plans to accept 100,000 refugees from around the world annually by 2017, up from 85,000 in 2016. While that is a jump in admissions, it pales in comparison with other moments in U.S. history. Take 1980, for example, when admissions reached more than 200,000. At that time, the Refugee Act of 1980 standardized “resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the United States.”

Resettlement quickly became a controversial topic in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks last year, which sparked new concerns about Syrian refugees and national security. The House passed a bill in November aimed at implementing stricter regulations for the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq; the Senate blocked the bill.


By admitting refugees, the U.S. runs the risk of having terrorists slip through the system.


Let’s put aside Syria for a moment and look back at U.S. history: Have terrorists slipped through the cracks before? In modern history, that hasn’t been the case, according to American officials and refugee advocates, who cite the rigorous process and high-level security checks that refugee applicants must pass to be accepted. Since September 11, 2001, only three refugees total have been arrested for “planning terrorist activities.”

Despite that, FBI Director James Comey has warned about gaps in the screening process. “If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,” Comey said in congressional testimony last year. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance there’s no risk associated with this.”

Much of the concern about terrorists infiltrating the refugee admissions process lies in other countries’ less rigorous level of screening. And, as my colleague David Frum noted, the U.S. refugee process “operates to a considerable extent outside national control,” mainly because the United Nations makes the first assessments of asylum seekers. As a result, several governors across the United States have called for a “pause” in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. For the time being, however, there’s no indication that will happen.


Okay, so the U.S. is unlikely to change course and bar refugees. But at the very least, they impact the country’s economy.


Admitted refugees do influence the host country’s economy in one way or another, but how so?

According to the Migration Policy Institute, “most refugees are employed.” They also show progression, with increases to their incomes over time. But when migrants fall into the poorest one-fifth of the population, it’s likely their children will stay there. Nevertheless, in reviewing how economies around the world have reacted after accepting refugees, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy notes, “[E]ven in countries facing huge influxes of refugees, the impact on the economy as a whole is usually not very large.”


Of course, there are always other questions to ponder:

How many refugees are too many to accept?

What’s the best way for the U.S. to coordinate and assist countries that are most impacted by the crisis?

Can the U.S. afford to support an increased number of refugees?

Maybe there’s an answer we haven’t considered yet. Drop your thoughts into an email to hello@theatlantic.com.