Why I believe in refugee resettlement-- even as a fiscal conservative

Mark Kessler is the Senior Director of Operations for Save the Children US and a former Walmart executive. He is a member of Canopy's volunteer advocates team and serves on a co-sponsorship team as well. He drafted the following guest post on World Refugee Day, June 20. 

Today, on World Refugee Day, I want to take a minute to reflect on the plight of a group of people that I feel are really misunderstood by a vast majority of the US population.  I ask you to drop your pre-conceived notions and consider that you might not have the whole story.  By the way, I am certain that I do not have the whole story – and I have biases – but I have looked into this more than anyone else I know that does not actively work with refugees for their day job. 

I will focus on the US Refugee Admissions Program (RAP) because it is the most concrete and it is what we have to deal with – at least right now – in the US.  In full transparency, I’m not sure that I would have all the same viewpoints if tens or hundreds of thousands of people washed upon our shores.  Not because I find it different morally, but rather practically.  I’m not sure I can reconcile how to process, secure, and integrate that many people in a manner that provides stability to our communities and treats the refugees with dignity.

I want to make three quick points on this debate:  all refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees; refugees are subject to “extreme vetting”; and refugees are not a total drain on our economy.

Of the roughly 1,000,000 legal immigrants to this country last year, less than 85,000 were refugees.  These refugees were part of a less-than-one percent subgroup of refugees that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) selected for third-country placement, based upon six criteria.  The US then has its own criteria it applies to those who have met the UNHCR criteria – which is administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – to determine if a refugee has a “well-founded” fear of persecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. 

According to the Department of State website, “No traveler to the United States is subject to more rigorous security screening than the refugees the U.S. Government considers for admission.”  This screening process usually takes 18 to 24 months and involves biometric collection; security screenings through four agencies, including the FBI; an interview by DHS with further biometric collection and verification; and a medical check.  They also receive cultural orientation classes.  If they get flagged anywhere along the way, the process starts over or they get disqualified.  This seems to me to be the definition of extreme vetting.

Though they are not initially self-sustaining financially, refugees tend to fare as well as the average US general population after a few years.   Frankly, there are a lot of variables in this equation and each group of refugees – the composition of which changes broadly over time – has its own subset of relative success or challenge thriving.  In Northwest Arkansas, the refugees that have resettled here have done exceptionally well.  The average time before getting a job is 50 days, with an average starting pay of $10 per hour; all of the families have been financially self-sufficient within 90 days; most of the families were off of all federal assistance within six months; and several of the families have begun volunteering, helping as translators and babysitters for newly arrived families.

In the end, it is your choice whether or not to support people fleeing from violence, intimidation, and/or other abuses.  To me, it’s a moral choice to support them. From a moderately conservative fiscal perspective, it’s not a home run, but it is acceptable and more than I had bargained for (pun intended) before I looked into it.  If nothing else, I just ask that we all read, learn, and think before spouting off an opinion.  I also ask that you consider walking alongside this unique group of individuals and families and welcome them into our community. 

Join us for World Refugee Day!

On Tuesday, June 20th, we want our Canopy community to join voices with millions worldwide in advocating for refugees.

We need your help!

The proposed budget makes cuts to the funding that refugee resettlement agencies receive, as well as funding that helps refugees abroad.

We are encouraging everyone to CALL our elected officials to let them know that our community stands FOR welcome and stands WITH refugees. Let them know about our amazing community that has opened their arms and welcomed refugees home. Encourage them to stand for what is good and for what is right. 

Consider making a $5 donation. 100 people giving $5 will ensure that a refugee family in Northwest Arkansas has a roof over their head for 1 month. What if we raised enough money to give them a roof over their head for 3 months or 6 months?

Share our Facebook page with your friends!

YOUR voice matters. OUR voice matters. TOGETHER we can make a difference. Together we can send a message that Northwest Arkansas welcomes refugees home.

Announcing an Interactive Exhibit About the Refugee Journey

We are excited to announce that on Sunday, April 23 from 12-6 pm, Students for Refugees and Canopy NWA will be hosting a Mock Refugee Camp at the University of Arkansas gardens (the area between Lot 56 and the Bud Walton Arena). Visitors will pass through several stations that simulate a refugee's journey, from the decision to flee their homeland, to their perilous travel by land and sea, to their arrival in a refugee camp, to eventual resettlement. It is free, open to the public and family-friendly

This project is the brain child of Students For Refugees Co-Founders Jessica Garross and Jamie Nix. The two University of Arkansas seniors had the opportunity to visit the Lesbos refugee camp in November 2015 and learn about the refugee journey first-hand. Upon their return, they worked to launch Students for Refugees as a means of educating the university community about the refugee crisis and advocating for refugee resettlement in Northwest Arkansas. They dreamed up this interactive exhibit to share what they witnessed in Lesbos with their community. "Our visit to Lesbos was life-changing for us," Jess explained. "We want to try to bring that experience home to Fayetteville." 

The Mock Refugee Camp is a joint venture between Canopy NWA, Students for Refugees and a number of other student organizations on the University of Arkansas campus. In addition to the exhibit, guests can visit informational booths for Canopy NWA and Students for Refugees and grab food from a selection of local food trucks. 

For more information or media inquiries, please contact Emily Crane Linn (emily.linn@canopynwa.org) or Lauren Snodgrass (lauren.snodgrass@canopynwa.org) at Canopy, and Jessica Garross (jngarros@email.uark.edu) or Jamie Nix (jamienix@email.uark.edu) at Students for Refugees. 

Canopy's Day on Capitol Hill

Last week, Chairman of the Board, Clint Schnekloth and I (Emily) had the opportunity to spend a day advocating for refugees on Capitol Hill.

We were grateful that both Senator Cotton and Senator Boozman took the time to meet with us personally. We found some areas where we really agreed—and others where we would like to see our senators doing more.

For starters, we could agree with Senator Cotton that conditions in refugee camps are pretty abysmal. He told us about how he and his wife took a trip to a refugee camp in Jordan a few years ago and bore witness to the dire humanitarian conditions in which refugees are forced to live—often for decades—while their cases are being processed. It was heartbreaking, he said, and he could agree that refugee camps are not good long-term solutions. His proposed solution is to focus more resources on stabilizing the countries that are producing the most refugees so that these people can return home…. And we like that idea—everyone likes that idea—but that doesn’t negate the importance of continued refugee resettlement in the mean time.  

The fact is that there are over 21 million refugees registered with the UN—the highest number in a generation—and millions of them simply will not be able to return home any time soon. When we shut these people out, they don’t return to their home countries—they flood into countries that are already saturated with refugees, countries like Jordan and Turkey and Kenya that play a key role in the US’ global counter-terrorism efforts, where they languish in camps and burden the countries that host them. By choosing to take in 60,000 fewer refugees this year than originally promised, we are forcing 60,000 additional people onto our allies, leaving them with fewer resources to devote to issues that directly impact our national security. Not to mention the fact that, national security aside, it’s just not consistent with our national moral values to turn away those in need.

The way we see it, as the global refugee population rises, the United States should be doing more—not less.

This is where we disagreed. Senator Cotton would like to reduce the number of total refugee admissions to 50,000—and his reasons are mostly economic. He is concerned that current immigration levels are driving down wages, with immigrants taking mostly lower-skill, lower-wage jobs and drawing on our public assistance programs. We have two issues with that: first, we haven’t found that to be true, especially in our home state of Arkansas; and second, we think the conversation around refugee resettlement should be separate from the conversation about immigration to begin with. Immigrants come to the US to study, work and visit—refugees come fleeing for their lives.

But in any event, we have not found that refugees—or immigrants more broadly—have had any sort of negative economic impact on Northwest Arkansas. Over the last 25 years, the foreign-born population in Washington County and Benton County has shot up by 460 percent and 500 percent respectively. At the same time, wages in Washington County have grown by 25 percent and wages in Benton County have grown by an astonishing 95 percent. It’s clear that immigration has had no negative effects on our economy—in fact, this report by Winthrop Rockefeller argues that it has significantly aided the economy, with immigrants.

And although we’re all new to refugee resettlement in the area, so far, our refugee clients have proven to be a benefit to our local economy. We at Canopy have sat around a table with local poultry plant managers who are each short 100 laborers or more at their plants, eager to employ any of our refugee clients who are interested. All across Northwest Arkansas—in poultry plants, at the university and in our local businesses—refugees are helping fill gaps in our labor market. Our first refugee families only arrived about three months ago, but already they are providing labor for our local businesses, contributing to the tax pool, Social Security  and Medicare—and they are even earning enough income that the cash assistance they were receiving from the state has been reduced or terminated entirely. As far as we can see, Senator Cotton’s concerns about the economic impact of refugee resettlement have not borne themselves out so far here in his home state. We agree that our national resettlement program should not reach beyond our country’s capacity—but our capacity is far, far higher than 50,00 annually, and we are asking Senator Cotton to raise that number.

Over in Senator Boozman’s office, the conversation centered more around questions of national security. He was already familiar with the extensive refugee vetting process and was aware that refugees have not perpetrated a single act of terror since the 1960s. However, he maintained that people have lost confidence in the vetting system; they simply aren’t sure that it is working the way that it is supposed to.

He said the only way to restore confidence in the system is to examine it closely and ensure there really are no weaknesses inherent in it.

We, of course, are all for that. We encouraged the senator to initiate such a review immediately and to be as thorough as possible. We want nothing more than to restore confidence in the vetting process—and if there are any areas of weakness, it seems crucial that we should waste no time in identifying them! However, Senator Boozman seemed hesitant that any such review could proceed while the president’s travel ban is on hold. He said the Senate could not begin the review process unless the courts allow the ban on refugee arrivals to take effect. We cannot see any reason for this: how would refugee travel bookings interfere with such a review? It seems to us travel ban or no, it is in our national security interest to begin reviewing the vetting and admissions process as quickly as possible. We pleaded with the senator to push for this review as soon as possible and, once his confidence has been restored, to throw his full support behind the refugee resettlement program.  

We’ll be continuing these conversations in the months and weeks to come and we invite you to join us. It was great for our senators to hear from us. But what will really make all the difference is if they hear from you! So please:

-Call or email Senator Cotton and let him know about the positive economic impact refugees and immigrants have had on our community.

Phone:  (202) 224-2353  

Website/Email:  https://www.cotton.senate.gov/?p=contact

-Call Senator Boozman and ask him to review the refugee vetting process without delay so that we can all feel confident in the system we are using.

Phone:  (202) 224-4843 

Website/Email:  https://www.boozman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/e-mail-me

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pressing forward despite a new ban

Yesterday, President Trump signed a new executive order, once again banning all refugee arrivals—regardless of background or country of origin—for 120 days and reducing the total number of refugee arrivals from 110,000 to 50,000.

Currently, there are 40 refugees in 7 families who have been approved to come to Northwest Arkansas and are waiting for their travel to be booked. The majority of those individuals come from Africa and Central America. Many of them have been waiting for over a decade to be resettled. Now, because of this ban, they will have to wait months more—and some of them will not be permitted to come until next year because of the drastically-reduced cap on admissions.

We are heartbroken for these families who must now remain in unsafe, hopeless circumstances for months as a result of this decision. While we desire for our country to be safe, decades of refugee resettlement have empirically proven that refugees do not pose a threat to our national security. As a result, we simply do not understand the motivation for halting the arrival of those desperately fleeing persecution.

With the help of our community, Canopy has resettled 24 refugees to date. All the children are enrolled in school—many of them for the first time in their lives. All the adults are enrolled in English and job training classes, and 5 of them have already begun working. All refugee families have been matched with dedicated co-sponsor teams who have already begun developing strong friendships with them and have begun introducing them to all that Northwest Arkansas has to offer.

Although our first families have only been here 3 months, Northwest Arkansas is already home to them. They have Arkansas State IDs, Arvest bank accounts and jobs in our local workforce.

They are Arkansans.

They get to be Arkansans because of our collective work—and because our elected officials allowed them the opportunity to come.

This Executive Order is heartbreaking to us, and is devastating for the refugee families we work with.

These are real people who are experiencing real suffering.  Real suffering that needs to end.

We are a nation founded by refugees fleeing religious persecution (pilgrims) and built up by immigrants seeking better lives.  

WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS.

We are truly thankful for Governor Hutchinson's, Congressman Womack's, and so many others’ vital support to Canopy's refugee resettlement efforts here in Northwest Arkansas, and we ask our community to join us in continuing to express the importance of the US's commitment to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. 

 

1)  CALL THE ELECTED OFFICIALS LISTED BELOW. 

Please join us in calling our State and Congressional representatives to let them know that Northwest Arkansas expects the US to stand by our commitment to refugee resettlement.

Here are the numbers you can call:

Governor Hutchinson

·      Phone:  (501) 682-2345

·      Website:  http://governor.arkansas.gov/contact-info/

·      Twitter:  https://twitter.com/AsaHutchinson

·      Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/asaforarkansas

SENATOR JOHN BOOZMAN 

·      Phone:  (202) 224-4843 

·      Website/Email:  https://www.boozman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/e-mail-me

·      Twitter: http://twitter.com/JohnBoozman

·      Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/JohnBoozman

SENATOR TOM COTTON

·      Phone:  (202) 224-2353  

·      Website/Email:  https://www.cotton.senate.gov/?p=contact

·      Twitter:  https://twitter.com/SenTomCotton

·      Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/SenatorTomCotton

CONGRESSMAN STEVE WOMACK

·      Phone:  (202) 225-4301 

·      Website/Email:  http://womack.house.gov/contact/

·      Twitter:  https://twitter.com/rep_stevewomack/

·      Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/RepSteveWomack

 

If you aren’t sure what to say, you can just say the following:

My name is [NAME] and I live in [City]. I am calling to share that I strongly support the US maintaining our commitment to refugee resettlement by reversing this Executive Order.

Welcoming refugees makes our country stronger and our world a better place. I would like to see [Representative Name] do everything in his power to reverse this Executive Order and let President Trump know that Northwest Arkansas stands ready to accept refugees.  

 

2)  GIVE TO CANOPY.

We're going to need your support to get through these uncertain times.  If you can’t give much right now, set up a recurring monthly gift of $10 or $15. You won’t hardly miss it, but it will really add up for our work. 

GIVE NOW

OUR WORK IS NOT SLOWING DOWN.  

In fact, this Executive Order only strengthens our resolve to the mission of creating a place of refuge for families in crisis.

Thank you for joining with us in this and stay tuned for more information.

 

 

 

Canopy NWA asks Senator Cotton to maintain US commitment on Refugee Resettlement

Senator Cotton,

On behalf of Northwest Arkansas Canopy NWA supporters, we are writing to ask for your continued support of the United States's commitment to Refugee Resettlement, and to work to reverse President Trump's Executive Order on Refugee Resettlement.

While we do not support the United States giving preference to one religious group over another, we do understand that one main reason people become refugees is because of their “well-founded fear of persecution” due to religion. 

So, we were encouraged by your previous efforts on Senate Bill 2708 that would double the number of Syrian Refugees admitted to the U.S. by an additional 10,000 people (over the initial 10,000 people authorized by President Obama).

You not only sought to double the number of Syrian Refugees admitted to the US, but you also sought to accelerate the approval process by dropping the requirement for those Syrian refugees to go through the U.N. screening process.

As you stated,

Religious minorities are among the most heavily persecuted in Syria, with many forced to flee to refugee camps in other countries. The problem is that a member of a religious minority who comes forward to the U.N. refugee centers are, in effect, openly declaring that they are a minority that is not trusted by either side in Syrias civil war.  Syrian religious minorities are members of close knit groups that are easier to check for security purposes.  With the belt-and-suspenders security built into this bill, I would be comfortable having someone who would come in as a neighbor to my family in Dardanelle.

Senator Tom Cotton's interview with Arkansas Democrat Gazette on May 22, 2016

Senator Cotton, we respectively ask what has changed that you are now supporting President Trump's Executive Order that blocks all Syrian Refugees from entering the U.S.?

We ask you to stand by your convictions, the legislation you currently have before the Senate, and work to reverse President Trump's Executive Order on refugee resettlement.

Sincerely,

Canopy Northwest Arkansas Board of Directors


Canopy NWA Supporters, we encourage you to contact Senator Cotton's D.C. office via phone to express your support for reversing President Trump's Executive Order on refugee resettlement.

If you aren’t sure what to say, you can just say the following:

My name is [NAME] and I live in [City]. I am calling to share that I strongly support the US maintaining our commitment to refugee resettlement by reversing this Executive Order.
Welcoming refugees makes our country stronger and our world a better place. I would like to see [Representative Name] do everything in his power to reverse this Executive Order and let President Trump know that Northwest Arkansas stands ready to accept refugees.  

Senator Tom Cotton's Contact Info

Related:  "Canopy NWA asks President Trump to maintain US commitment on Refugee Resettlement"

Please contact us with any questions.