On March 18, the International Rescue Committee announced its intention to reopen an office in Missoula after the U.S. State Department gave it the green light to proceed. The IRC expects to hire two full-time and one half-time positions to staff the office and begin the process of resettling an estimated 25 families, or up to 100 individuals, in the Missoula area over the course of a year.
This means Missoula will soon become a doorway into this country for refugees escaping destruction in their homelands and seeking to build a better life in the land of opportunity. In the months and years ahead, we should do our utmost to offer a heartfelt welcome to those who have suffered violence, death and injustice in their home countries.
We should also do our utmost to make sure the refugee resettlement process is as effective as possible.
From the beginning, residents across western Montana have voiced legitimate concerns about the potential impacts of accepting refugees. They rightly want to know whether the refugee vetting process is as secure as it must be to protect against the threat of terrorism. They are troubled about the costs involved in processing refugees and in helping them to get established in American communities. And they wonder whether new cultural and religious practices will be a good fit with those already in place in Montana.
Last things first: The United States, and Missoula, have a long and proud tradition of welcoming immigrants of all kinds and cultures. Missoula’s first resettlement office opened in 1979 and helped hundreds of Hmong refugees make their homes in Missoula. The office also helped many Belarusian and Ukrainian settlers begin new lives in Missoula, although by 2008 it closed, in large part because of a lack of new refugees.
Sadly, there is no lack of refugees now. There are more than 15 million refugees in the world; an estimated 4.8 million are Syrian refugees forced to flee their home country.
The U.S. has traditionally taken in only a fraction of these migrants, however, last year, President Barack Obama proposed increasing the total number of refugees accepted in fiscal year 2016 to 85,000, primarily by expediting the approval process for as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees. In 2015, the U.S. admitted 70,000 refugees; only 3 percent were from Syria.
The costs involved with refugee resettlement warrant closer scrutiny.
In fiscal year 2015, the Office of Refugee Resettlement budget was $1.56 billion; of this, $948 million was spent attending to unaccompanied minors who crossed the U.S. border with Mexico. The office reported spending about $300 million on medical services and cash payments (refugees usually get a one-time stipend of at least $1,000 to help them pay for necessities such as food and clothing). Social services (including job training and language education) totaled another $150 million.
It’s worth debating how much up-front cost the U.S. is willing to bear to accommodate refugees who may be the victims of political, religious or other persecution in their countries of origin. However, as part of this debate, it’s also worth paying attention to the multiple studies that have found that, over the long term, refugees actually provide a net economic gain in their host countries. Refugees are more likely than other immigrants to open small businesses, earn higher wages and create higher-wage jobs. After a few years, studies show, their contributions to the tax base equal or exceed whatever costs were necessary to help them get established.
Indeed, refugees are even required to pay back the cost of their plane ticket to the U.S.
It’s safe to say that security is the most pressing concern.
Along with our fellow Americans, Montanans have watched with horror as Islamic extremists have carried out deadly terrorist attacks in Bussels, Belgium; Paris, France; and San Bernardino, California – to name but a few of the atrocities committed by groups including the Tabliban, Islamic State and Boko Haram.
European countries and the U.S. want to welcome those fleeing the violence of a common enemy – but we do not want that violence to follow them here. Unlike Europe, where displaced populations press against the borders, the U.S. is far enough removed geographically to be more selective in choosing who to accept.
Refugees who register with the United Nations may qualify to undergo an extensive background check required by the United States. Specialists with multiple security agencies verify biometic data, screen databases and conduct interviews in a process that typically takes longer than 18 months. Just because it takes the federal government a long time to do something doesn’t mean it’s being done correctly or thoroughly, however, the refugee vetting process is far and away the most secure system the U.S. has in place for admitting immigrants. But the system is only as good as the information on which it is based, and unfortunately, few refugee applicants are able to provide reliable documentation and questions have been raised about the legitimacy of information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies that are used to conduct the background checks.
Therefore this process – along with other immigration programs – must be closely scrutinized for any gaps that could allow a terrorist to slip through. It is clear already that there is room for improvement.
Montana’s U.S. senators and representative are approaching these improvements in very different ways.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, Montana’s lone congressman, co-authored the Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, a bill that would pause refugee processing until a more extensive background check system could be implemented and require intelligence directors to sign off on each Syrian refugee admission to the U.S. It passed the House with strong support but fell shy of 60 votes in the Senate.
Sen. Steve Daines was among the senators who supported the SAFE Act. He is also a supporter of the Syrian Refugee Verification and Safety Act, which would prohibit funding for refugee admissions from certain countries into the U.S. until stricter security protocols are established.
Sen. Jon Tester has sought to drill down on the details of the refugee vetting process; in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, he itemized 11 categories of concerns and in response got an overview of the refugee vetting process. We support the senator in pressing for answers to his very reasonable questions. Of Montana’s three congressional delegates, his approach seems the most measured – and most likely to lead to meaningful reforms.
All three of Montana’s congressional delegates have questions surrounding the data that our intelligence agencies use to conduct refugee background checks. Those who describe the system as thorough are relying on the idea that there is adequate information at hand to conduct a background check, which doesn’t appear to be the case. Many national security experts have said the data has huge gaps and cannot always be relied upon. Tester is asking the right questions but getting the run-around. And Zinke seems convinced it’s a mess.
Now that Missoula is getting ready to begin resettling the state’s first new refugees in several years, Montana’s congressional delegates must redouble their efforts to assure that the vetting process is as secure as it can possibly be. They should listen to the concerns of their constituents in the Missoula area, demand answers on our behalf and push for immediate improvements.