U.S. Refugee Policy in the Era of Homeland Security: A Comparative Government Analysis

Reiss Kuczera


Since the 20th century, America has seized opportunities to lead the international community and subsequently claim global power status and influence. It proved its military might in both world wars, and for decades, it has championed human rights around the world. Although humanitarian policies often serve the country’s self-interests politically, humanitarian actions also fulfill America’s promise of a land of opportunity, rooted in its historical identity as an immigrant nation.[1] Currently, the United States faces several difficulties in the immigration sphere, especially when it comes to reforming its refugee policy to meet the demands of the current world.

The process for refugee resettlement in the United States is not necessarily broken, yet U.S. policy makers are unable to decide whom they wish to allow to go through that process and when. These selections are driven by political objectives and short-term thinking rather than by long-term strategy and careful employment of research and sound evidence. This thesis identifies the lack of clear and collective national strategic immigration plans or priorities as significant problems. In the absence of a national strategy and priorities, U.S. refugee policy lacks consistency, is subject to political discourse, and is often perpetuated without evidence. The failure of the United States to lead the response to the forced migration of Syrian war refugees challenges both its position as the global leader in humanitarian policies as well as aspects of its own national identity. Justification for this failure is found in the recent national discourse that has framed refugees, and immigration in general, as homeland security threats as well as a drain on the country’s economy.

However, this thesis finds extensive research that shows refugees who resettle in the United States harm neither the local nor the national economies. Some evidence even suggests refugees may improve local and national economies. Refugees do face hurdles to economic integration upon initial arrival, which has some costs, but in the long-term, they perform on par with other immigrants and native-born people and contribute to the economy. Although costs are certainly inherent in the resettlement of refugees, if the United States invests in social and economic integration, evidence suggests refugees have a net neutral or positive effect on the economy as do other immigrants.

Meanwhile, reports regarding the effects of refugees on United States national security are sparse. Despite the prevalence of claims about the homeland security threat posed by refugees, an extremely small number of terrorist plotters and serious criminals have entered the United States as refugees. Although the narratives about refugees and their threat to the prosperity and security of the United States have been confusing and contradictory, the evidence relating to the validity of these threats is clear. The United States’ strength and status in the world comes from its military, wealth, and adherence to and promotion of moral ideals.[2] Ignoring the evidence when debating refugee policy is, therefore, not only counterproductive but also potentially dangerous to United States’ maintenance of its status in the world.

This thesis provides a comparative analysis of the refugee policies in United States, Canada, and Germany, all liberal democracies facing similar immigration issues. It finds that claims that refugees negatively impact a country’s economy and national security in Canada and Germany are also unfounded. Fears of economic and security collapses resulting from the massive influx of Syrian refugees to Germany, for example, have proven to be without merit. This analysis answers the question of what U.S. policy makers can learn from the refugee policies of Canada and Germany and makes 11 recommendations for the United States based on this analysis.

Although the negative claims about refugees are baseless, there remain significant challenges and outcomes that must be addressed in the country’s refugee policy. First, policy makers must recognize and accept the narrative that refugees harm the U.S. economy and national security is baseless and promote these facts to the larger society. Other challenges of fiscal prudency and homeland security appear to have a common solution––effective integration. The successful integration of refugees into a host country’s labor market and greater society accelerates those positive effects of their migration as well as minimizes the risk and vulnerability of ostracized refugees falling prey to crime and extremist ideology.

These findings matter for several reasons. America and its allies generally accept that “the United States leads the world in three distinct areas: military strength, wealth, and adherence to and promotion of moral ideals.”[3] Its strength and wealth have been demonstrated through its military strikes in Syria and giving $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) since the start of the Syrian crisis. [4] However, the in its response to the Syrian crisis, the United States has failed to adhere to its role as a promoter of moral ideals.[5] American identity based on an immigrant heritage, the promise of a land of opportunity, and refuge for those fleeing dangerous and oppressive situations in their home countries are such ideas. Increasing the securitization of immigrants since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has made it difficult for the United States to adhere to its moral ideals. The relatively moderate action of the United States in accepting Syrian refugees under the Obama administration and its outward hostility and skepticism of refugees under the Trump administration thus far has threatened the United States’ position in the international community by undermining its moral authority and leadership.

The U.S. reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis is comparatively weak when compared to the responses of Canada and Germany. Although the United States and Canada share a tradition of immigration, the two countries have responded differently to the Syrian refugee crisis.[6] Canada’s strongly positive position toward refugees is a large reason for the increase in Canada’s stature in the international community over recent years.[7] Though not without criticism, Germany has also strengthened its status on the European continent, and indeed throughout the world, by taking in the largest number of refugees in Europe. Meanwhile, the United States has abandoned its adherence to its moral ideals, and in doing so, may be jeopardizing its wealth, security, and power. Soft power is particularly important in international relations, and many lawmakers and citizens fear recent restrictive U.S. refugee policy will erode this important power.[8] Therefore, widespread evidence and best practices in Canada and Germany both offer the United States the information and tools to regain this power, should policy makers have the will.




[1] Eleanor Acer, The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership (New York: Human Rights First, 2016), https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/HRFSyrianRefCrisis.pdf.

[2] Bryce E. Yost, “Admitting Syrian Refugees: Is the Threat of Islamic State Infiltration Justified?” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2017), http://hdl.handle.net/10945/55562, 34.

[3] Ibid., 20–22.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Melissa Carlier, “Explaining Differences in the Canadian and American Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Virginia Policy Review 9, no. 2 (2016): 56–82.

[7] Jonathan Kay, “Why Canada’s Refugee Policy May Actually Be Doing More Harm than Good,” National Post, September 8, 2017, http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/jonathan-kay-why-canadas-refugee-policy-may-actually-be-doing-more-harm-than-good.

[8] Nahal Toosi, “Lawmakers Fear Trump Will Undercut America’s ‘Soft Power,’” Politico, November 13, 2016, https://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/trump-america-soft-power-231253; Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “How Trump Is Surrendering America’s Soft Power,” Bloomberg View, June 2, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-06-02/how-trump-is-surrendering-america-s-soft-power.

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