The Tennessean, June 24, 2016
Before the Refugee Act of 1980, refugee resettlement was the work of true sacrificial charity, where sponsors and charities committed to maintaining and supporting the refugees with housing and employment, even medical care if needed. There was an explicit bar to the access of welfare benefits. The sponsor was responsible for all costs. This helped to guarantee assimilation and is how we absorbed post-WWII refugees, those fleeing communist oppression in Eastern Europe, the Hungarian Revolution and other upheavals.
With the 1980 Refugee Act and related laws, the charities morphed into money-making federal contractors whose main job is to link the refugees with social services and welfare benefits. The 1980 act made all welfare available to refugees upon arrival — for life, if eligibility is maintained.
Originally, the Refugee Act included three years of federal refugee cash assistance and medical insurance. As well, state governments were reimbursed for their expenditures on welfare used by refugees, such as Medicaid (TennCare), for three years. By 1991, reimbursement from the feds for state welfare expenditures had been completely eliminated and the three-year period of refugee cash and medical assistance for refugees was limited to eight months.
According to the most recent government data, even those refugees in the country for five years are largely dependent on taxpayer largesse. Sixty percent of this group receives food stamps and 17 percent are on the cash welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). A nationwide U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study shows 44 percent are still in Medicaid and 29 percent of families who have been here for five years have one or more members on the lifetime cash welfare program Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
This gives an idea of the costs to the federal taxpayer and of the unfunded federal mandate placed upon state taxpayers by this program.
Because of the byzantine structure of Tennessee’s program, there is no way to get exact costs. Both the state refugee coordinator and state refugee health coordinator, who are supposed to represent the state and its taxpayers, are actually employees of Catholic Charities, the federal contractor whose income rises in direct proportion to the numbers of refugees resettled. Further, the salary for both of these positions is paid not by the contractor, but by the feds. How’s that for a conflict of interest?
In a healthy and open environment, information would be made available from these two sources, which would help in evaluating program success and program costs, such as use of TennCare by refugees, rates of infection with communicable disease and so on. Alas, because of incentives and disincentives built into the refugee coordinators’ jobs, the best strategy for them is to withhold information.
Secrecy surrounds all aspects of the program. We have no idea what it is costing Tennessee. Statistics about medical conditions among refugees are secret. Even the numbers of refugee arrivals proposed for next year is a secret. And when arrival numbers are reported, after the fact, they are routinely reported as lower than actual numbers by conveniently neglecting to include categories of resettlement that are not official refugees, but that have the same entitlements — and benefits to the contractor — as refugees.
Orwellian use of language allows for absurd claims about refugee economic integration. For instance, refugees are considered officially "self-sufficient" even if they receive every federal welfare benefit except TANF. Refugees in temporary jobs or training programs are counted as “employed.” An unpublicized federal audit from 1999 obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request found that Memphis Catholic Charities was dropping refugees off at a day labor lot and reporting them as “employed."
It was never intended that the sponsors, known as "Voluntary Agencies," would be purely federal contractors with all the behavior, untoward incentives, money and influence peddling that this brings. Yet, that is what we have today.
There would be no issue with this program if refugees were resettled in the traditional way America has always absorbed refugees. As long as the current resettlement model persists, it is imperative that Tennesseans have a say in how state resources are used. The state attorney general should proceed with SJR 467 challenging the federal government’s presumed authority over state resources.