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.