The Olive Branch and the Maple Leaf: A Comparative Analysis of Refugee Policies in Canada and the United States and the Potential for Blended Reform

Robert Tisdale


The topic of immigration continues to be a divisive issue in political and social circles in the United States. Congress’s inability to craft legislatively viable immigration reform is indicative of this situation and the stalemate in which the country currently finds itself. In addition to issues surrounding the southern border, another explosive topic is the admission of refugees and whether their admission presents a threat to the United States. As the Syrian civil war continued to expand, governments around the world, including the Obama administration in the United States, pledged to increase their refugee admissions to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis of a generation. Simultaneously, the perceived reach and strength of terrorist groups, especially the Islamic State (ISIS, also known as the Islamic Status of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], or simply IS), grew after ISIS claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks that occurred across Europe. These fears spilled westward, and the belief that refugee admissions posed national security threats was one foundational message that led to a change in political control and the Trump administration’s attempts to ban refugees from entering the United States.

There are three main concerns that are raised with respect to refugee admissions. First is fear of terrorism—the belief that terrorists could exploit the refugee admissions program to enter the United States to cause harm. Second, because refugees enter the United States in a socioeconomic status lower than the general citizenry and with limited English skills or education, there is a belief that refugees’ reliance on social welfare programs is a financial drain on the United States and leads to long-term economic harm. Finally, arguments raised by several states in litigation against the Obama administration alleged that despite statutory mandate dictating the inclusion of state and local stakeholders in the resettlement process, these stakeholders have been left out of the decision-making process.

Through objective analysis of attacks in the United States and what is known regarding the perpetrators’ motivations, this thesis concludes that the admission of refugees does not pose a security threat to the United States. Several specific incidents since 2015 were analyzed using open-source data; the analysis demonstrated that terrorists are not using the refugee program to enter the United States by masking their true intentions. Instead, due to social isolation and ISIS’s mastery of social media and online messaging, it is more likely that individuals become radicalized and plan attacks against the United States once they are in the United States.

The analysis also demonstrated that fear of economic harm is unwarranted. Though the majority of the refugees entering the United States from Syria have lower levels of education and employment, focusing on these facts alone omits pertinent data and skews the conclusions. For example, the majority of recently admitted Syrian refugees are children under the age of fourteen, which by default means they will have lower education levels compared to the overall population in the United States. Furthermore, when examined longitudinally, Syrian Americans achieve parity with, or exceed, the educational level of the general U.S. population.[1] Finally, there are competing studies regarding the use of social welfare programs versus benefits from taxes through employment; however, after an examination of the methods and evidence, it is more likely than not that refugees provide economic incentives to a receiving country that outweigh the costs of benefits the refugee receives through social welfare programs.

The final point of debate and contention—the federal government’s failure to communicate with state and local stakeholders regarding refugee resettlement issues—breaks with the pattern above: evidence validates this concern. Despite statutory requirements to have regular stakeholder meetings and ongoing discussion to ensure refugees are resettled in accordance with community needs, refugees are often placed within communities with no coordination, creating discord between refugees and the local population. Accountability must be introduced in the form of regulations that impose tangible consequences upon those whose inaction or inability to work with other partners leads to the failure of these meetings.

Breaking with traditional arguments, this thesis also discusses whether the United States has an ethical obligation to receive refugees. The research reviews differing points of view—from traditional philosophy, to actions surrounding World War II, to the current refugee crisis in Syria—and concludes that the United States does have an ethical obligation to take action. This ethical obligation is separate from, but complements, the legal obligations the United States faces through international agreements and stateside legislation.

Even though the United States does not face a physical or economic threat from the admission of refugees, the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) still needs improvement. Through comparative analysis with Canada’s refugee admissions program, this thesis determined that the United States could not only reverse course and return refugee admissions to its projected levels under former President Obama, but could surpass these admission levels without long-term costs to the federal government. By adopting best practices from the Canadian refugee admissions model, as well as the Canadian Provincial Nominee Program, the United States could continue to meet its humanitarian obligations while ensuring its national security.

These practices—combined with the existing immigration system framework in the United States through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—could help return the United States to its position as a world leader of annual refugee admissions. This would benefit the United States socially and economically, in both a broad sense and on a community level, as refugees could be sponsored based upon the specific needs of communities around the United States. This concept could be tested in a pilot program that takes advantage of the twenty-six USCIS districts; this would ensure a widespread and comprehensive sample, and could help dispel fears that any such program would be politically charged rather than focused on the highest possible benefit for the highest number of people and organizations.

Decreasing refugee admissions and erecting physical, executive, or legislative barriers has not increased the safety of the United States. Instead, it has negatively affected the United States’ international standing and has caused the country to fail to meet ethical and legal obligations to provide safe haven to those seeking protection. Based on anecdotal evidence from the southwest border and from Europe (in response to its tightening of asylum and refugee procedures), it is possible that the United States could experience increased incidents of smuggling and human trafficking in the future. To combat this potential trend, the United States must reverse course in its refugee admissions, which will ultimately lead to long-term benefits for the United States as a whole.

[1] Camille L. Ryan and Kurt Bauman, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” U.S. Census, March 2016,

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