Has Minnesota nice become Minnesota naiveté?

A closer look at U.S. refugee resettlement policies and the impact on Minnesota

The Center wants to start a conversation about U.S. refugee policy. We will start with a report, due out at the end of the year, that describes how refugee resettlement works and the estimated cost to taxpayers.

We can then move on to discuss the impact of refugees on the cultural and political fabric of Minnesota. At the heart of this discussion lays difficult questions like, “What is our moral obligation to refugees?” “What constitutes genuine humanitarian assistance for refugees?” “Has Minnesota’s welfare budget been commandeered by federal refugee policy?” “How many refugees can Minnesota successfully absorb?” “Should the United States admit refugees who do not believe in the free exercise of other religions?” “How will Islam affect our culture, law and freedom, particularly for women living generations from now?”

In 2015, the world witnessed the largest number of refugees since WWII. Failed nation states and unrest in majority Muslim nations in particular, are a defining feature of the post-cold war era. The number of refugees, people who have fled their own country due to war or disaster, now exceeds 21 million with over half coming from just three nations: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Refugees are distinct from the internally displaced, migrants and immigrants.

In response, the U.S. has opened its doors to over half a million under the Obama administration, and nearly 85,000 thus far in 2016. Historically, the United States accepts more refugees (and immigrants) than all other nations combined. That may change, however, as waves of people from Middle Eastern and African nations arrive in neighboring nations and Europe, and as Americans insist on a different approach.

To facilitate integration, as distinct from assimilation, the U.S. has built a resettlement program comprised of myriad federal agencies and a host of federally contracted charities called Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGs).

This institutional network is built on the premise that providing safe passage to the U.S. is only the first step in successful resettlement. Through government agencies and VOLAG contracts, taxpayers provide medical assistance, job training, language education, housing, transportation and welfare benefits to refugees. Refugee resettlement across the U.S. is now a multibillion dollar enterprise with active connections to many churches in Minnesota.

The federal government decides where to place refugees, often in concert with local VOLAGs, rather than state governments. Though scant, the available data suggests that refugee resettlement is a costly undertaking. To defray state-level costs, the federal government provides a one-time payment of up to $2,200 to VOLAGs and modest assistance to state programs. But most federally funded benefits sunset after the first three months of a refugee’s stay in the country, and all federal benefits expire by the end of eight months. After that a refugee’s major needs are covered by state benefits.

To determine which state receives how many refugees, this network of institutions considers the availability of resources within the placement community and the presence of family or kin. As a result, resettlement costs are not borne equitably across states. Given Minnesota’s generous welfare policy and the large numbers of refugees already here, it is no coincidence that Minnesota receives more refugees on a per capita basis than any other state in the nation.

The high concentration of VOLAGs in Minnesota like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and World Relief affiliates likewise renders Minnesota a preferred resettlement destination. It is standard procedure for VOLAGS to enroll refugees in welfare programs upon arrival. With labor participation rates hovering between 30% and 40% across Minnesota’s highest density refugee nationalities, there is little doubt welfare consumption persists long after resettlement has officially ended.

In light of growing economic and national security concerns, generosity now confronts pragmatism in America’s refugee resettlement system. Concerns about the current policies’ long-term viability are prompting worried conversations among citizens and introspection among policymakers.

A report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded, “local communities [are] burdened by a refugee resettlement system that is not working.” The report elaborated:

“Local governments are often burdened with the weight of addressing the unique assistance refugees require, yet they rarely have an official role in influencing how many refugees are resettled by local voluntary agencies and often are not even informed in advance that new residents will be arriving.”

There is perhaps no clearer example than Minnesota, which not only receives the highest number of refugees but also receives a high number of ‘secondary migrants’ who move to Minnesota after brief stays in other states. According to Macalester College Professor Ahmed Samatar, Minnesota is the closest thing in the U.S. to a “true democratic socialist state.”

There is no federal or state policy against “state shopping.” Once refugees are in the U.S., they are free to move around just like any U.S. citizen. And while states can withdraw from the refugee program, that does not prevent continued refugee placement by the federal government.

What impact is this having on Minnesota?

The Center is analyzing both the direct welfare costs and some of the indirect costs such as welcoming refugees at public schools and law enforcement related to Islamic terrorism. Minnesota is home to 25 percent of all ISIS recruits from the United States.

The most frustrating discovery is that there is no refugee-specific data on welfare consumption, or economic and criminal activity, and other indicators crucial to evaluating policy efficacy. We don’t know if the federal government has thrown a cloak over the data, or if it is just incompetent. Moreover, the clear politicization of existing data by organizations like the United Nations further complicates the hunt for objective conclusions.

Like Scandinavia, Great Britain and Germany, Minnesota’s cultural and institutional default is to help those in need and to do so generously. We are not supposed to question refugee policy on any grounds. To do so is to risk being socially ostracized. But ignoring the growing unease about refugees will not stop Americans from balking. Witness the frustration many citizens and even recent immigrants expressed during the 2016 election. It is time for the United States to explore this difficult subject. Minnesota should take the lead.