The Corner

Immigration

Return to Real Charity for Refugees

People protest against planned Trump administration cuts to the U.S. refugee resettlement program, in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., October 15, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

In the past, refugees were, like all immigrants, expected not to become dependent on taxpayer largesse. Any support they needed came from individuals or private groups — sacrificial charity, given voluntarily, most often by religious organizations.

Government funding of refugee resettlement started in a very small way in 1948, when the federal government for the first time paid for the trans-Atlantic travel costs of a certain number of displaced persons from Europe — but private charities were still required to take things from there and to ensure the refugees didn’t become public charges. In the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the government for the first time paid charities directly to resettle those refugees, at $40 a head.

From tiny acorns grow mighty oaks.

A recent study by several of my colleagues at the Center for Immigration Studies found that the lifetime cost (taxes paid minus services used) to taxpayers of resettling a refugee is $60,000, with those entering as adults costing twice that. Part of this is the $2,175 per head payment by the State Department to its resettlement contractors — Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and other ostensibly private organizations that are now primarily funded by taxpayer money. Also driving this is the fact that refugees, unlike other immigrants, have immediate access to welfare, which they make extensive and long-term use of because of their typically very low levels of education and, in many cases, a complete unfamiliarity with modern, urban society.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the main responsibility of the taxpayer-funded resettlement contractors is to sign immigrants up for taxpayer-funded welfare. These religious groups have turned Christ’s admonition on its head; in the Gospel of Matthew, He says, “When thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.” Instead, today’s resettlement contractors not only sound a trumpet every chance they get, but also seek the glory of men through alms supplied not from their own resources but with other people’s money, taken by force.

This shift from voluntary private charity to mandatory taxpayer funding is part of the broader left-wing hostility to philanthropy. As Karl Zinsmeister wrote in the Wall Street Journal in January, “For people with a controlling impulse, private wielders of resources represent alternative sources of ideas and social legitimacy that must be suppressed in favor of unitary government prescriptions.” (It was co-opted rather than suppressed in the case of refugee resettlement, but the impulse and effect is the same.)

Bernie Sanders expressed this impulse baldly when he was mayor of Burlington: “I don’t believe in charities.”

A better model for refugee resettlement would be to return to private sponsorship, which is the way Canada resettles most refugees. A sensible version of this for the United States would operate under the numerical ceiling set annually by the president, with individual candidates for resettlement selected and vetted by the State Department. The sponsoring organization or individuals would then undertake genuine charity by committing to be legally responsible for five years to provide whatever support (from their own funds) the refugee may need. This would not only save taxpayer money, but also be much more likely to foster self-sufficiency and assimilation.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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