Let’s take a real look at our refugee policies


President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders changing America’s policy on refugees have created a great deal of controversy.

His decisions — to halt refugee admissions from Syria indefinitely, halt admissions from all other countries for 120 days, and prioritize religious minorities — have outraged many Americans and U.S. allies, while pleasing others who want to see a stricter vetting process of those coming into our country and a tougher approach to fighting Islamic terrorism.

Conflicts like the one going on in Syria displace millions of people, and most people understandably want to help them. But we could all benefit from understanding of what America currently does for refugees, what it’s done historically, and the costs and benefits of various ways of helping them.

Keep clicking through the storyboard to learn answers to some of the key questions you might have:

  • How big is the refugee problem, and how much is the U.S. doing to help?

  • How much does taking refugees in cost, and do they benefit the U.S. in the long run?

  • Is Trump right that they can represent a terror threat?

  • What else can we do to solve the situation that we’re not already doing?

  • There are more refugees in the world than ever before.

    There’s no doubt about it: The global refugee crisis is real.

    The number of refugees, asylum seekers (people fleeing conflict who don’t yet have official “refugee” status), and people driven from their homes but still in their own country is the highest it has been in human history, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees.

    There are currently more than 20 million refugees outside their home country today — that’s almost one out of every 100 people worldwide.


    The numbers have been steadily growing in recent years as a result of conflicts in places like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it began rising even more quickly as the situation in Syria has deteriorated. There hasn’t been a refugee crisis comparable to this, the U.N. says, since World War II.

    The U.S. has long played a significant role in accepting refugees: We accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Europe while the continent rebuilt after World War II, and since 1975, we’ve taken in more than 3 million refugees, many of them fleeing Communism in Southeast Asia and the Soviet Union. The decision to accept “boat people” from Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War, for instance, was not without controversy at the time, but the hundreds of thousands accepted into the U.S. far outstripped the numbers other Western countries received.

    Recent years have seen many more refugees from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, and the situation in the Middle East has led nearby Europe to accept more refugees than it ever has before, pulling ahead of the United States.

    The bulk of displaced persons around the world, however, remain in countries near the country they fled. Even with Europe accepting a million or so migrants over the past year or so, most Syrian refugees remain in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. (And Somali refugees remain in nearby Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen.)

  • Many refugees have flourished in the United States, but some have not.

    Refugees, just like other immigrants, have made some incredible contributions to our country: The U.S. welcomed a teenage refugee from Ukraine in the 1990s, Jan Koum, who grew up to be a billionaire as founder of WhatsApp, one of the world’s most popular mobile apps. Google co-founder Sergey Brin came to the U.S. fleeing Soviet persecution, too; so did actress Mila Kunis. Thousands of Jews who fled to the United States in the 1930s, from Albert Einstein to Marlene Dietrich, became pillars of American society.


    Some large groups of recent refugee arrivals have flourished as well: When the U.S. accepted tens of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees from Bosnia during the 1990s, many of them ending up in St. Louis, where they have quickly assimilated and produced many successful professionals.

    A lot depends on what kind of skills and educations the refugees have when they arrive, however. Studies of Cuban refugees, for instance, found that earlier waves of more-educated immigrants have assimilated well and become prosperous, but less-educated immigrants have struggled. In one of the most dramatic examples, Somali refugees to the U.S., many of whom have concentrated in Minneapolis, have struggled to assimilate, and rely on state welfare programs at very high rates.

    The current mix of refugees the U.S. admits are somewhere in the middle: Syrian and Iraqi refugees are more likely than Somalis to have college degrees, for instance.

  • Some refugees and asylees have been involved in terrorism.

    President Trump has justified his decision to pause refugee admissions in part with the claim that they could represent a national-security threat — either because they are admitted and later decide to commit acts of terror, or because they have terrorist ambitions and use the refugee system to gain admission.

    Opponents of Trump note that most acts of terror are not committed by refugees, but there certainly is reason to worry about the possibility. Consider these examples:

    • Two of the perpetrators of one of the largest terror attacks on the West in recent years, the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, were men from the Middle East who appear to have slipped into the continent alongside asylum-seekers.
    • Two members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who successfully entered the U.S. as refugees in 2009, were caught in an FBI sting operation in Kentucky. Their fingerprints were found on improvised explosive devices in Iraq.
    • The two Boston marathon bombers, who killed four people at a terrifying attack at the 2013 Boston marathon, came to the U.S. with their family, seeking asylum.
    • An 18-year-old Somali, who first left his country as a refugee to Pakistan, used his car and then a butcher’s knife to injure 13 people on the campus of Ohio State in November 2016, citing ISIS and al-Qaeda as inspiration.
    • Dozens of Somali refugees have left the United States to go fight for ISIS, al-Qaeda, and al-Shabaab, sometimes with support from inside the U.S., raising the possibility they could return here to do harm as well.

    One important distinction when it comes to vetting migrants is the difference between “asylum seekers” and “refugees”: The Paris attackers and the Boston bombers were “asylum seekers,” meaning they just show up in a country and apply for status, as opposed to refugees, who submit to an application process run by the host country.

    Refugees also sometimes come here with seemingly innocent views and then later radicalize.

    Technically speaking, the hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants arriving in Europe over the past several years are asylum-seekers, not refugees. The situation in Europe, therefore, with un-vetted people flowing into the continent, is somewhat different from the debate in the U.S., where we are deciding whether to accept refugees whom we get to assess before they even get on a plane.

    The U.S. system for vetting potential refugees, which President Trump has promised to beef up, is extensive; it was significantly toughened after the al-Qaeda in Iraq members were discovered in Kentucky. But it has weaknesses: The vetting system can only be so effective when some refugees’ home countries, like Syria and Somalia, have limited government records. It also doesn’t currently involve much in the way of investigating applicants’ social media presence and views on Islamic extremism.

    Refugees also sometimes come here with seemingly innocent views and then later radicalize. In fact, it’s common enough that even an Iraqi refugee who had actually served the U.S. military as a translator later pledged allegiance to ISIS and lied to FBI agents about his attempts to travel to Syria.

    All that said, many national-security experts advocate a robust policy of helping refugees, because it helps support our allies in the Muslim world, and leaders like Condoleezza Rice and David Petraeus have condemned President Trump’s new policy.

  • Resettling refugees here is a really expensive way to help them.

    It costs a lot of money to help someone build an entirely new life in the United States, especially if they come from a poor country, lack English-language skills, or face the range of challenges common among people fleeing conflict.

    The financial cost of accepting and resettling refugees is shared among:

    • the federal government, which has an Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Health and Human Services Department and Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in the State Department
    • state and local governments, which run resettlement programs and employ social workers to aid refugees
    • private organizations like churches and charities, which often receive government payments to cover some of their costs
    One expert estimate found that the U.S. spends about $14,700 on each refugee the first year he or she is accepted.

    According to the National Council for State Legislatures, the Office of Refugee Resettlement spent $582 million on resettling refugees in 2014, a year when the U.S. accepted about 70,000 refugees. That works out to about $8,300 per refugee in that year (though some benefits go to refugees already here). Then there’s the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, which spent about $310 million in 2013. It’s hard to break that down per refugee, however, because some of that money goes to helping refugees in other countries who never come here.

    That’s already more than $10,000 per refugee, roughly speaking, but it doesn’t cover the whole cost of taking in refugees because they’re offered a lot of help that doesn’t come through refugee-specific programs. For instance, refugees are eligible for Medicaid, cash welfare benefits, food stamps, and other programs.

    An estimate from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the U.S. spends about $14,700 on each refugee in the first year he or she is accepted. That number still excludes a number of welfare programs for which refugees are eligible, however. The real number would be higher in the first year, though it would drop in later years.

    Whatever we make of those costs, they are much, much higher than other forms of aid to those fleeing conflict zones. In 2015, the U.N. refugee agency said it needed about $4.5 billion to care for 4.3 million registered Syrian refugees — about $1,000 per person.

    In other words, the whole Syrian refugee budget for the region — which is covered by wealthy governments from all over the world — would only cover the resettlement of a few hundred thousand Syrian refugees in the United States (or any other wealthy country).

  • Pause or slow down admissions until we’ve improved the system.

    The Case for a Pause

    As we’ve covered earlier, we know that there are tens of millions of refugees around the world, but resettling them in the U.S. is extremely expensive, and no wealthy country is accepting a large share of the overall refugee population. So pausing refugee admissions, as the Trump administration has done, isn’t going to have a large effect on the crisis either way.

    And Trump's policy is explicitly designed to allow time to tighten up the vetting system during the pause. Here's the exact wording:

    The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.  During the 120-day period, the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.  Refugee applicants who are already in the USRAP process may be admitted upon the initiation and completion of these revised procedures.  Upon the date that is 120 days after the date of this order, the Secretary of State shall resume USRAP admissions only for nationals of countries for which the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence have jointly determined that such additional procedures are adequate to ensure the security and welfare of the United States.

    It could certainly make sense if we use the pause to beef up our assessments of refugees, giving the American public greater confidence that we’re accepting people who aren’t going to later do harm to our country.

    Polls have found that Americans broadly support accepting refugees, but also support the idea of temporarily pausing refugee admissions and reducing the number we accept.

    The Case for Resuming Acceptances

    At the same time, accepting some refugees shows that the U.S. is committed to doing its part as part of the global community, helping its allies, and living up to our strong tradition of welcoming refugees. And, of course,  it will transform the lives of some of the world’s most persecuted people. So it’s hard to argue that, once we have an improved vetting system, we shouldn’t resume admitting refugees.

    It’s worth also worth being aware that President Trump’s executive order does not block all refugee admissions: Refugees already in transit will still be welcomed here, and it allows for exceptions on a case-by-case basis. The recent stories of people caught in transit appear to have been victims of new restrictions on travel from certain countries, not on refugees per se.

  • Prioritize those who are at the greatest risk, such as religious minorities.

    The Trump administration’s announcement that it will emphasize refugees fleeing religious persecution has raised some controversy, due to its connection with talk of a “Muslim ban,” but there’s nothing strange or discriminatory about it.

    Religious persecution is one of the key reasons refugees flee their homeland, and the threat ISIS represents for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East is especially acute. In fact, helping refugees fleeing religious persecution is a longstanding tenet of international law.

    Given the small number of refugees the U.S. can take, it’s worth making sure that we are giving a home to people who simply cannot stay where they are. According to religious freedom expert Nina Shea, Syrian Christians especially are under threat even once they reach refugee camps outside of Syria. Yet as of September 2016, the U.S. had accepted just 56 Syrian Christians, out of more than 10,000 Syrian refugees accepted overall.

    There are a number of ways to make sure we’re taking refugees who need our help the most, but prioritizing religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, is one simple way to do it. It’s not necessarily simple because sometimes religious minorities especially fear registering as refugees.

  • Help solve the root causes driving people to become refugees.

    As we covered earlier, resettling refugees here is expensive. The vast majority of the millions of people displaced by the war in Syria and other conflicts will not find a home in Western countries, whether the U.S. or elsewhere.

    The only way they’ll ultimately be able to lead normal lives is if they’re able to return home to live in peace. The key, then, is to help bring an end to the conflicts that are driving innocent people from their homes.

    That’s not easy, of course, but the Obama administration’s approach to the war in Syria has taken a middle path between offering real support to replace Bashar Assad and agreeing to a political solution that brings an end to the war but may keep him in power.

    Better approaches could involve either more aggressive efforts toward a political resolution or more support for Western-friendly rebels, including the Iraqi Kurds and moderate Islamic rebels. (Had such an approach been taken earlier in the Obama years, the current refugee crisis might not be nearly as large.)

  • Establish “safe zones” to shelter refugees nearer to their homes.

    No Western country is proposing to resettle a large chunk of the refugees from the conflict in Syria, which has led to a number of proposals for establishing “safe zones” within Syria, or neighboring states, to protect innocent civilians until they can return home. The costs would be substantial, but still lower than properly resettling refugees outside the region.

    President Trump has proposed making the establishment of such zones a priority, working in tandem with the Middle Eastern countries who have the most at stake in the refugee issue. Potential allies include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who can bring immense financial resources to bear and have tentatively agreed to support the idea.

    Safe zones also solve another problem, Phillippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians, points out: They will help relieve the burden that the governments of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are currently bearing in hosting millions of refugees without the resources to help them or keep them safe. Those governments are currently under tremendous stress, both in terms of security concerns and financial burdens, and both their citizens and the refugees they host could be better off if the West would pledge to support safe zones.

  • Chris Smith
    Republican congressman


    “The freedom to practice a religion without persecution is a precious right for everyone, of whatever location on earth.”

    Why They Matter

    Republican congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey has been a leader on religious freedom issues for decades now.

    He helped lead the bipartisan effort to pass the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, and now he’s working to draw attention to the ongoing genocide of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq.

    Read More

  • Catholic Charities
    Resettlement organization


    “Behind these [refugee] statistics are people, each of them with a name, a face, a story.”
    Pope Francis

    Why They Matter

    Catholic Charities, like a number of other groups (religious and non-religious), plays a key role in resettling refugees across the U.S.

    Local branches of Catholic Charities are assigned refugee cases by the State Department, and then take the lead in providing their new guests with housing, food, clothing, and a path toward self-sufficiency.

    Go here to read about one great success story, of a Vietnamese refugee helped by Catholic Charities of Camden, N.J.

    Read More
  • Islamic Relief USA
    International aid organization


    “Refugees leave their homes and
    their entire livelihoods
    behind because
    not doing so isn’t an option. ”

    Why They Matter

    This international humanitarian organization, which has a Muslim identity but serves people regardless of creed, has taken a prominent role in helping refugees in Syria and nearby countries.

    From Tom Rogan on Opportunity Lives:

    If anyone questions the decency of American Muslims, they should read IRUSA’s Syria factsheet. In 17 pages of statistics, the document outlines how IRUSA supporters have sustained nearly 4 million people. But the range of IRUSA programs is similarly stunning.

    Read More
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