Friends of Refugees has had some concerns about the recently announced increase in refugee program funding (see our recent post on this announcement). We wanted to know who made this recommendation and what criteria was used. We understand that President Obama ordered a comprehensive review of the refugee resettlement program by the National Security Council (NSC), but who is on the NSC’s Interagency Task Force and who is the Task Force consulting with? (It has been reported in several newspapers that the Task Force will be releasing it’s recommendations in February.)
According to an NSC official recently contacted by Friends of Refugees, the Interagency Task Force assigned to conduct the Administration’s review of the refugee program is composed of the NSC, the U.S. Department of State (DOS), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The official stated that in addition to the Task Force members, stakeholders from State governments, voluntary agencies, and think-tanks have also been consulted and will continue to be consulted over the course of the review process. The official also stated, somewhat strangely, that the NSC does not, “have any info on the timeline”, regarding when the NSC will release the final recommendations.
We then asked a State Department official how the PRM is funding the increase in the Reception and Placement (R&P) per capita grant. According to the official the President’s budget request for Migration and Refugee Assistance for refugee admissions was $305 million. Congress then voted to appropriate even more funding to the PRM then the President had requested, and the PRM was able to allocate a total of $324 million for refugee admissions.
In a follow-up email to the State Department official we asked why the increase in funding was done in advance of any recommendations from the NSC. We asked, “Isn’t the point of the NSC formulating recommendations to determine such things as whether or not R&P public funding should be increased, to what level, and what rules should be applied to how resettlement agencies may use those funds?” The official responded briefly that the PRM was, “aware of the urgency of the refugees need…[and that the increase] was done with NSC concurrence.”
In addition, we asked how the PRM decided on the $1800 figure. We pointed out that the increase identically matches the $1800 per capita recommendation made in the refugee resettlement group LIRS’ cost-analysis report ‘The Real Cost of Welcome’, which was also trumpeted by the Refugee Council USA. “Did the PRM simply agree with LIRS’ and RCUSA’s figures, or did it arrive at the $1800 separately?”, we asked. “Did the PRM agree with the $1800 figure by analyzing the LIRS cost-analysis [report] to determine if the numbers made sense, or did they use some other analysis?” “Did they do any other analysis to arrive at the $1800 figure?” The State Department official responded simply that, “The $1800 amount was determined based on the funding that was available, and the LIRS analysis.”
In our group’s opinion this presents a problem if the LIRS cost-analysis report is not accurate, which we believe it is not. The report claimed that LIRS-affiliated resettlement agencies’ private contributions were paying for 61% of the cost of resettling refugees in the first 30-90 days. Yet, neither LIRS nor some of their affiliates whose costs LIRS analyzed have budgets which are more than 8% privately funded. How then were resettlement agencies supposedly able to pay for 61% of refugee resettlement costs? According to the LIRS analysis churches and other local groups and people were supplying about half of the resettlement agencies’ 61% share of costs. The churches and community groups’ contribution is listed as volunteer time and in-kind donations. So the the church groups and other local groups contribute 30%, with the State Department and other federal contributions paying 39%, and the resettlement agencies only contributing a supposed 31%, if we are to believe their figures.
Yet, where are the resettlement agencies accounting for their supposed 31% contribution? Certainly the small part of their budgets that apparently comes from private sources could not account for 31% of refugee resettlement costs up to the refugees’ first 30-90 days, could it? If so, then the figures reported in the LIRS cost-analysis report may not be accurate. Isn‘t this important to know if the PRM is depending so highly on the LIRS report? (By the way none of these figures take into account the much larger government contributions from the ORR and other government agencies which provide for refugees’ needs up to the end of their eighth month in the US. The LIRS cost-analysis and the recent State Department doubling of refugee funds only covers the R&P part of refugee resettlement – the first 30-90 days.)
Considering all of this information, why hasn’t the NSC and the State Department’s PRM consulted with independent groups and stakeholders who have been critical of how the resettlement agencies have used the public contribution - people who have no vested interests in the funding increase? So far almost all of the agencies and groups that have been consulted have enormous vested interests in advocating for an increase in government funding. Why would they not advocate for increased funding?
Even the few think-tank people who have been consulted have been highly swayed by the resettlement agencies, no doubt. Witness Eric Schwartz Assistant Secretary of the PRM, a former think-tank member and NSC official, who recently visited several refugee resettlement agencies and became convinced problems could be solved by adding more public money. Mr. Schwartz must have no comprehension of the critical need to be weary of the opinions of people with vested interests. If this official and former think-tank member also consulted fellow government agencies in the refugee program, agencies that also have deep vested interests, then we would have to ask, what government agency wouldn’t want more money?
If the NSC wants to have balanced information by which to make recommendations to the President and to the State Department, shouldn’t people and groups who are knowledgeable about the refugee program and have no vested interests in the money – and therefore no conflict-of-interests – give input about the current needs and problems of the program? For example, our group Friends of Refugees was never consulted. We have a wealth of information about how refugee resettlement and government oversight agencies have performed over the past ten years. Although our group supports and advocates for refugee resettlement in the U.S., we have also been critical of the performance of those agencies. We believe that the data and recommendations we have are critical for determining what has gone wrong with the program. We receive no government funding nor have we requested any. None of us are former refugee resettlement agency employees with an ax to grind. Our only interest in the program is in helping refugees and also making sure that tax-payer money is spent wisely and accountably, i.e. we have no conflicts-of-interests as almost all of the people and groups do who are recommending increased public funding as the main, maybe only, way of solving problems in the refugee program.
Throwing more public money at the program, and without first consulting independent players, may well make the problems worse. Certainly, the increase in funding to the resettlement agencies should not have been done until those agencies could assure the government that they would use the funding accountably, and that the public will be given a mechanism by which to determine if the increase in public funding is being used responsibly. Finally, the huge increase in funding may well just make the refugee resettlement agencies less inclined to raise private contributions. If so, this increase in public funding may actually hurt refugees and damage public perception of the program.