Who Asks the Right Questions About Refugees?

We do. Sunday’s Pioneer Press had a long article about refugees in Minnesota that featured an admirable family: the Sivasundarams, who have come to Minnesota from Sri Lanka, by way of Malaysia. They hold multiple jobs, and they love Minnesota. Their children grew up speaking English and appear to be assimilating well.

If you focus on a single successful family, you can create the impression that our refugee programs are terrific and it would be good to take in lots more refugees. Conversely, if you focus exclusively on the story of a refugee who turns out to be a murderer or attempted murderer, you can easily create the impression that the refugee spigot should be turned off immediately.

As always, the answers to public policy questions do not lie in selected anecdotes of either variety. The Pioneer Press left it to the Center’s Kim Crockett to voice some of the questions about our federal and state programs for refugees:

[R]efugees cost an estimated $107,000 each in food aid, medical expenses and other services, according to one researcher. [Ed.: That is a national number; the figure for Minnesota is almost certainly higher.] Communities have no control over the in-flow of refugees, yet they must share the cost of supporting them. And residents often don’t speak out or even ask questions of the process for fear of being called racists, according to Kim Crockett, vice president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank based in Golden Valley.

“No one ever asks taxpayers: ‘Do you want to support this?’ ” she said. “When we question this, we are told that is mean-spirited, bigoted and xenophobic.”
A 2017 Notre Dame study on the economic outlook of refugees said that after 20 years, refugees are more likely than native-born residents to be receiving welfare and food-support payments — and they are also more likely to be employed.

But not all refugee populations are the same. As we have noted before, Somalis are overwhelmingly the largest group of refugees in Minnesota. Unfortunately, according to the state demographer at the end of 2013, only 41% of Somali men and 54% of Somali women in Minnesota were working at all. And Minnesota has taken in far more than its proportionate share of refugees:

Minnesota has the highest number of refugees per capita nationwide, according to the U.S. Census and refugee-support agencies. With 2 percent of the nation’s population, Minnesota has 13 percent of its refugees.

The burden of this disproportion falls on the state:

The refugee resettlement program is a federal effort, but the federal government “does not compensate Minnesota, or the local school districts, cities or counties, who may find themselves coping with large concentrations of refugees,” Crockett says. So when many refugees end up enrolled in Medicaid or assistance programs such as those for housing or transportation or language study, Minnesotans absorb the extra costs.

“Today, voluntary agencies like Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities have more say on where refugees are placed than elected officials in Minnesota,” Crockett adds. “That’s wrong.”

All of us are sympathetic to people who are uprooted from their homes by war, or for other reasons become refugees. But with millions of people displaced around the world–according to the Pioneer Press, over 65 million became refugees in 2016 alone–basic policy questions need to be asked and answered. How many refugees can the U.S. afford to take in? Does it make sense to admit a relatively tiny number of refugees to the U.S. at great cost, or is it better, from a humanitarian perspective, to protect a far greater number of refugees closer to where they live? Is it appropriate for the federal government to resettle refugees without making any provision for the costs that they impose on state and local governments and taxpayers?

Here in Minnesota, taxpayers can only evaluate our state’s refugee programs if they know how much they cost. This is something the Center has tried to find out, but data are hard to come by. For whatever reason, no one in our state’s agencies seems to know how much our refugee programs cost Minnesota taxpayers. Yet, as with any government program, understanding the cost is essential to evaluating the appropriateness of the program.

The Center will continue digging for facts, and will persist in asking the questions that, for whatever reason, many others seem reluctant to raise. This is the only way that the people of Minnesota can arrive at a sound policy on refugees.