Welcoming refugees is a luxury we can’t afford

By John Williams

Reader Contributor

I have read with some interest recent articles in the Reader concerning refugees and whether they are “welcome” in North Idaho. I offered to write something that would elucidate how the refugee industry works and the risks associated with accepting refugees here. My offer was accepted provided I include facts and not emotions.

I think it would be helpful to begin with some historical background and how the term “refugee” is defined. This is important inasmuch as refugee programs are based upon this definition. One of the early challenges to the United Nations was the humanitarian disaster that was post WWII Europe. In response the U.N. promulgated the 1951 Convention, which defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Thus, migrants of various sorts, such as children in El Salvador fleeing gang violence, are not refugees. It is also important to understand that the original Convention and the Protocol of 1967 are inherently euro-centric. In the case of the U.S., the first major refugee crisis was closer to home, in Cuba. In response was the Refugee Act of 1962. The next decade witnessed the disasters in SE Asia, which begat an Act in 1975. In an effort to create a general framework to handle refugee problems, Senators Kennedy and Biden crafted the Refugee Act of 1980, which amended or superseded the earlier legislation. This law created the refugee industry that we have today.

An inherent feature in any law is the Law of Unintended Consequences. The Act of 1980 envisioned a public-private partnership wherein charitable groups and non-profits would help the federal government resettle refugees. These groups, known as “voluntary agencies” or Volags, contract with the feds to provide various services. Over time, these Volags have evolved to become what the British call “quangos” (quasi-NGOs).  On paper, they are private but in reality they are almost entirely (95 percent) funded by federal tax dollars. Their principal source of income is a per-head fee of about $1,000. This creates what is often a perverse incentive to move as many people as possible through the system. The crisis they are now declaring is due to the reduction in the number of refugees allowed resettlement this year, which will shut off the money spigot. The original cap in the Act of 1980 was 50,000, which can be increased by the President if it is deemed in the “national interest”. During the last administration the average year saw a cap of 65,000. Last year the Volags lobbied for an increase to 200,000 and Obama compromised at 110,000. Thus, the 110,000 figure is anomalous. The Volags had planned for this cap but as of 2/24 the number of arrivals is about 37,000, which means arrivals and the associated fees will end soon. As a result, the Volags are downsizing fast, closing offices and laying off employees. If they had worked harder on fundraising they might have a cushion, but the government money was too easy.

In theory, each state is supposed to have an office of refugee resettlement that is supposed to coordinate with the Volags to facilitate the placement process. The office should represent the state and its interests. In the case of Idaho, there is no state office. Idaho is what is called a “Wilson-Fish State” and the state office has been replaced by the official-sounding Idaho Office for Refugees, which is supported by the Episcopal Migration Ministries, a Volag. The point is that the state office has been replaced by a quango that represents the interests of the Volags and is not accountable to our state government or state taxpayers. This is a problem.

If the above incentives are not perverse enough, it is important to understand that what drives a lot of refugee resettlement is big business. In Idaho we currently have two major resettlement areas, Boise and Twin Falls. The hidden magnet in Boise is the nearby Kuna meat plant, built by Caviness and our own J.R. Simplot Co. Meatpacking used to be a source of high-paying, unionized jobs. Not any more. Meatpackers discovered cheap refugee labor in the 1990s and have never looked back. In Twin Falls we have Chobani and the world’s largest yogurt plant. Chobani claims they are bravely humanitarian, but their motives are more prosaic and pecuniary. The basic problem with these situations is that the employers get cheap labor and the social costs are dropped on local and state taxpayers.

A very serious problem with resettlement offices is the lack of transparency and local control. Once the flow of refugees begins it is almost never stopped. Local governments are expected to provide many services for which they are not reimbursed. This includes the educational system, hospitals and the courts. Unfunded mandates include the requirement that interpreters be provided for any languages spoken, no matter how exotic. Some school systems boast 44 languages, some even more, all of which require interpreters. This strains the limited resources of small communities. It would help if the Volags would not mix so many different refugees into a given area, but that’s not how they work. The community is neither consulted nor even informed as to origin or number of new refugees.

Which brings us to North Idaho. When Bonner County commissioners voted against welcoming refugees, they were wise to do so. If Sandpoint arranged for a refugee office to be opened there, it is unlikely any refugees would be settled in town. They would much more likely end up in Ponderay, Kootenai, Naples or Bonners Ferry. A refugee office has an operating radius of 100 miles, so Sandpoint would be writing a check all the rest of us would be expected to cash. There is a lot of poverty outside of tidy little Sandpoint. Our school system is underfunded as it is. Welcoming refugees, however noble and edifying it may sound, is a luxury we can’t afford.

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