Target the refugee ceiling—A Commentary by Betsy Cooper ’12 and Katie Reisner ’11

The following commentary was posted on TheHill.com on October 12, 2010.

Target the refugee ceiling
By Betsy Cooper ’12 and Katie Reisner ’11

Just because our troops have left Iraq does not mean we should forget our commitment to Iraqis.

Last week, the President set an 80,000-person ceiling on the number of refugees who can enter the United States next year. This is the upper boundary of our commitment – rather than the goal we commit ourselves to fulfilling. In doing so, the President missed an opportunity to rethink our responsibility to vulnerable populations, especially the 4 million Iraqis now scattered across the globe.

He also missed a chance to send a clear message during this campaign season that he is a wartime leader who thinks not only about winning missions and ending combat but about the people we leave behind. Americans may have soured on our military efforts in the Middle East, but they still look to the President to end wars with empathy and a long-term view of our relationships around the world.

On face, the refugee resettlement numbers are disappointing. Despite the scale of the Iraqi refugee crisis, the United States plans to accept only around 17,000 Iraqis into the country this year – roughly the same as last year. This means that many clients of our organization, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, will be stuck waiting abroad.

We could do better – and have. The United States annually resettled at least 35,000 refugees fleeing the Vietnam War for over a decade. After the Cold War, we welcomed over 60,000 Soviet refugees in a single year. We have played no less of a role in causing the refugee crisis in Iraq, yet our commitment to resettling refugees seemingly has waned.

One simple solution requires only that President Obama rethink what we’re already doing. Five years ago, academic David Martin proposed an important fix: to treat the declared refugee numbers as targets rather than ceilings. In other words, the number authorized by the President should be a goal for refugee resettlement rather than an absolute limit – making “admissions shortfalls . . . a failure of the system.”

A target would affirm our historical commitment to refugees. The 1980 Refugee Act, which created our refugee admissions system, describes protecting refugees as the “historic policy of the United States.” Now is no time to abandon or dilute that commitment. A target allows us to actively bring refugees through our open door, rather than simply leaving it ajar, and only to some.

A target also provides a more reliable baseline for administrative planning. In 2009, the United States admitted 75,000 refugees out of 80,000 spaces, leaving thousands in danger where we did not need to. Government forecasts tell us that we will not reach the ceiling this year either.

Further, targets provide flexibility to react to imminent crises, enabling us to accept an influx from unanticipated disasters. Traditionally, policymakers leave some spots “unallocated” to deal with unforeseen events--wiggle room below the defined limit. For 2010, only 500 unallocated spots remain. The need for refugee resettlement fluctuates as unpredictably as earthquakes strike or civil war erupts. The U.S. resettlement policy must be similarly flexible.

And treating the refugee ceiling as a target would, finally, remind our foreign partners that refugees like Iraqis are endangered as ever before. Our European allies commit far less to refugee resettlement – taking about 5,000 refugees a year between them. They also forcibly deport refugees back to Iraq, where their persecutors await their return. This lack of international commitment to refugees has real consequences. One of our clients, a sex trafficking victim, was killed before her resettlement application could be granted. The U.S. needs to take the lead in mitigating such useless tragedy.

There are admittedly costs to resettling refugees, who face myriad challenges upon arrival. But as our country of immigrants has long recognized, newcomers also bring many great benefits. From Einstein to Albright, many of our most inspirational figures have been refugees. They speak the very languages we struggle to learn, know the regions most important to our national defense, and bolster our military and intelligence capabilities. Resettling Iraqi refugees in particular increases our credibility and signals our genuine humanitarian commitment to the Middle East. Accepting refugees does not just make America a force for good in the world; refugees are a force of good for us.

The United States could easily reach a refugee target by designating additional groups for expedited processing. Of the three ways the United States admits refugees – individuals, families and groups – group-based admissions are the most efficient. New group designations – such as for trafficking victims or LGBT refugees – would protect the most vulnerable, improve the United States’ capacity to respond to refugee crises, and streamline the procedures for processing individual cases.

Some may argue that the United Nations cannot handle more refugee applications. But it processes refugees at a rate commensurate with the numbers the United States will accept. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: we resettle most of the refugees referred to us because we tell the United Nations how many cases to send us in the first place. If we increase our target, or at least reach it, the UN will speed up processing as well.

There’s reason to hope that President Obama will adopt this mantle of reform: its innovator, David Martin, is now a top Department of Homeland Security official. We strongly encourage the President to take his advice.

Dr. Cooper is the Co-Director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and a Yale Law School student. Reisner, MSC, also works for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and is a Yale Law School student.