Fact Check: 5 Myths About Refugees In America

by Annie Reneau
Christopher Penler / Shutterstock

With terrorism taking center stage in our political discourse, the question of refugees and associated risk is posed regularly. With a new executive order on immigration taking effect on March 16, President Trump will once again halt the entire refugee program for 120 days, purportedly in the interest of national security.

However, concerns over refugees and security are largely based on myths. Here are five of the most common myths about refugees in America debunked:

1. Refugees can’t be vetted thoroughly.

Yes, they can. And they are. Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted category of traveler to the United States. The process takes up to two years and involves multiple security clearances by both UN and U.S. agencies as well as ongoing security checks after resettlement. If there’s not enough information — if they actually can’t be vetted — they don’t get admitted. It’s as simple as that.

Check out this description of the vetting process by a person who vetted refugees from the Middle East. The process is deep, solid, and has so far proven virtually impenetrable.

Let’s also remember: Refugees from the Middle East are the people fleeing terrorism and are the most likely to assist in battling those extremist elements.

2. Terrorists have a good chance of infiltrating the U.S. refugee program.

If terrorists try to infiltrate the refugee program, then they are not very bright. It is literally the hardest, longest, and least likely way to get into the U.S.

First of all, less than 1% of refugees who have gone to another country are eventually resettled in a third country (which would be the case for the U.S. almost exclusively), and refugees being referred by the UN don’t get to choose what country they go to. So if a terrorist wants to come to the U.S., they’re basically playing the lottery.

Second, again, refugees are the most vetted category of traveler to the U.S. The 18-t0-24-month process is long and grueling.

Third, it would be much easier for someone to come into the U.S. on a travel, student, or work visa than through the refugee program. Any security checks that would stop them from coming by visa would most definitely bar them from the refugee program, since — once again — refugees are the most vetted people entering our country.

An analysis by the Cato Institute found that your chance of being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion. Yes, that’s 1 in 3,640,000,000. You have a greater chance of being killed by your own clothing than by a terrorist who comes to the U.S. through the refugee program. That’s how well our vetting system has worked so far.

3. Look at how crime rates have skyrocketed in Europe. The same thing could happen here.

There are two parts to this myth that I’ll address separately. First, the skyrocketing crime rate in European nations is a false claim. A few highly publicized incidents of crime and false allegations by our President do not a trend or crisis make. The data simply doesn’t show that crime has increased or that refugees are any more likely than the general population to commit crime. (In fact, immigrants in general are less likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens.)

The second part of this myth that needs addressing is the comparison between the European and American resettlement programs. Germany alone took in a million refugees in 2015. Germany has less than a quarter of the population of the U.S., yet took in 13 times more refugees than we did that year. Our refugee resettlement program in recent years has been incredibly modest compared to our European friends.

The other difference is that the majority of refugees to Europe arrive on foot or by sea. There are greater challenges with managing the flow of refugees to Europe. We don’t have people living in crowded refugee camps or detention centers in the U.S., and no one is crossing the Atlantic on a little boat from the Middle East to arrive here unannounced. The process of physically getting here is much more difficult, and it simply doesn’t happen except through official programs and channels.

4. Refugees cost us money.

It is true that there is an upfront cost to resettle refugees (though, notably, they are required to repay the cost of their plane tickets). But research done around the world, including the U.S., has shown that over time refugees have at worst a cost-neutral effect and at best a cost-positive effect. A study by Texas A&M professor Kalena E. Cortes found that once they get on their feet, refugees actually add more to the economy each year than the entire cost of their resettlement.

In other words, they don’t actually cost us anything in the long run and may in fact benefit our economy. They might even help us make more headway than we already have housing homeless veterans.

5. Refugees take jobs away from Americans.

Part of the reason refugees don’t cost us in the long run is because immigrants, including refugees, are twice as likely as average citizens to start businesses. In fact, a 2010 analysis of immigrant entrepreneurialism found that 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants, and 7 of the 10 most valuable brands in the world come from American businesses owned by immigrants or children of immigrants. Businesses create jobs.

Other research has found that foreign-born workers who don’t start businesses usually find jobs that are hard to fill with U.S.-born citizens.

So no, they aren’t taking jobs. They’re filling a need and creating jobs as well.

One last thought to leave you with: After 9/11, the U.S. shut down its refugee program for less than 90 days to reexamine the vetting process. After the worst terrorist attack in history occurred on our soil, the refugee program was shut down for 90 days. Now our current president will shut down the refugee program for 120 days, all while Syrians are suffering through the biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. Prompted by what?

Based on the evidence, the terrorism risk posed by refugees is minuscule, the effect on our jobs and economy is a net positive, and refugees less likely to commit crimes than the average citizen. So why is it again that we are closing our doors?

There is only one reason to shut down the U.S. refugee program right now: blatant, prejudicial fear-mongering. The data just doesn’t add up to anything else.