Sen. John Hoeven Showing Misunderstanding of Refugee Resettlement Program

Refugees mainly from Syria, Iran and Iraq are seen inside a registration camp on March 12,
Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the federal refugee resettlement program.

In an interview with Chris Berg broadcast on Valley News Live, Hoeven asserted that North Dakota could rejoin the the federal refugee resettlement program if it chose to.

It was Hoeven, best known as the co-author of the Corker-Hoeven Amendment that was widely criticized by conservatives, who withdrew North Dakota from the program in 2011 while serving as governor. The amendment to the 2013 Gang of Eight bill, which many described as amnesty for illegal aliens, helped it pass in the Senate, but it failed to pass in the House.

But an attorney familiar with the refugee resettlement program tells Breitbart News Hoeven got it wrong in his interview with Berg.

North Dakota is one of fourteen states that have withdrawn from the federal refugee resettlement program. In those states, the Obama administration has hired voluntary agencies [VOLAGs] to continue to resettle refugees under the questionable statutory authority of the Wilson-Fish alternative program.

To date, none of these fourteen states have asked to rejoin the program, which began with the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.

Lutheran Social Services [LSS] has been hired by the federal government to operate the refugee resettlement program in North Dakota. The Obama administration pays VOLAGs including LSS more than $1 billion annually to resettle refugees in states around the country.

“If there’s any concern about it, then the state, they can just take it back, they can set it up the way it was or set it up differently,” Hoeven told Berg.

Not so, says the attorney familiar with the refugee resettlement program.

“A state that has previously withdrawn from the federal program would be required, by statute, to submit a state plan, subject to approval by the Office of Refugee Resettlement [ORR] in order to re-assume administration of the federal program,” the attorney tells Breitbart News.

On Friday, responding to an inquiry from Breitbart News, Hoeven backtracked.

“We’re not aware of statutory authority that would prevent a state from applying to rejoin the federal refugee resettlement program as a participant,” (emphasis added) Hoeven told Breitbart News in an emailed statement.

But rejoining the program, even in the unlikely event the ORR, the part of the Department of Health and Human Services that runs the federal refugee resettlement program, would accept such an application from North Dakota, would have little impact on the operation of the program, with regards to the vetting of refugees, the security of the program, or its cost to the state.

“Since the resettlement program in North Dakota is now being administered pursuant as a Wilson-Fish alternative program, it raises the question of whether the regulations would give the Director of the ORR the authority to require that a re-acquiring state would likewise have to administer the federal program according to the Wilson-Fish plan as asserted in the ORR Wilson/Fish Alternative Program FY 2015-2016 Program Guidelines,” the attorney familiar with the refugee resettlement program adds.

When the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, the federal government promised to pay all the costs of refugee resettlement incurred by the states (for Medicaid, education, English as a Second Language programs, and a number of other social welfare benefits) through direct reimbursements. But over time, the federal government has reduced its financial commitment to reimburse the states, leaving them on the hook.

“The shifting of the federal costs of the program onto the states, is one that must be addressed by Congress,” the attorney says.

“A 2010 Senate hearing report and GAO reports acknowledge the federal cost shift, an issue that persists whether the state or Lutheran Social Services administers the program,” the attorney adds.

The issue of the cost of the operation of federal refugee resettlement program, however, has largely been overlooked by Congress.

Don Barnett, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, recently estimated that the cost to the state of Tennessee, a Wilson-Fish alternative program state like North Dakota, of the federal refugee resettlement program is at least $165 million annually.

“As for the costs in other states, you can make some preliminary guesses about state costs based on how many refugees are resettled there over time, as compared to Tennessee,” the Center for Immigration Studies’s Barnett tells Breitbart News.

“We would have to look at the entire flow of refugees over time to North Dakota and analyze out migration from the state before estimating the annual cost to the state of North Dakota. But if it has been in the program for as long as Tennessee then we are looking at $45 million or so in annual costs to the state of North Dakota,” (emphasis added) Barnett says.

Both North Dakota and Tennessee joined the program in the 1980s. Tennessee withdrew in 2008, North Dakota withdrew in 2011, but the program continued in each state after that withdrawal.

In North Dakota, for instance, 1,000 refugees have been resettled over the past two fiscal years, which is 30 percent of the approximately 3,500 refugees that have been resettled in Tennessee over the same time period.

“I would be glad to share details of this analysis and see if North Dakota can produce its own cost analysis,” Barnett adds.

When Breitbart News brought the financial costs the huge unfunded federal mandate the refugee resettlement program imposes on the state of North Dakota to Sen. Hoeven’s attention, he did not dispute that the program imposed such a mandate.

He did, however, tell Breitbart News, “I don’t support unfunded mandates and believe states should be able to determine how they want to handle refugee resettlement programs,” in his emailed response.

In his Thursday interview with Berg, Hoeven asserted that North Dakota could force the VOLAG selected by the Obama administration to operate the program in the state, LSS, to operate the program according to the state’s wishes.

“Because it has gotten to be an issue – I would be talking to the legislators and I would go to LSS and to the federal government and say, OK, this is how we want it to operate. So I think that’s the dialogue the governor and the legislature should have,” Hoeven said.

“Determine how they want it to work, get it set up that way, if they hit problems they may have to get into litigation or take up other efforts, but first decide how you want to do it and and go ahead and set it up that way,” Hoeven added.

“I recommended that the state go to Lutheran Social Services and the federal government to get the program set up the way they want it and if it didn’t work they may have to pursue other means like litigation,” Hoeven told Breitbart News subsequently in an emailed statement.

He did not specify, however, whether any potential litigation should be brought on Tenth Amendment grounds, as the anticipated lawsuit from the state of Tennessee would do, or on grounds that the federal government is violating the terms of the Refugee Act of 1980 by failing to consult with state officials, as the states of Alabama and Texas have done in recently filed lawsuits.

The Alabama and Texas lawsuits appear to be going nowhere.

The VOLAGs have, in essence, told both Texas and Alabama they will be informed of the number of refugees settled in their states, their countries of origin, and their health and security status, as limited as that information is, after they have been settled. Simply by communicating these details, without allowing the states to have an impact on any aspect of the program, the VOLAGS are arguing that they are in compliance with the Refugee Act of 1980, and the federal courts appear to be buying that argument.

In North Dakota, however, there appears to be a growing level of support to sue the federal government on Tenth Amendment grounds, as the Tennessee General Assembly recently declared it will.

North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson recently said that he will support legislation for North Dakota to sue the federal government over its operation of the refugee resettlement program in North Dakota when the State Legislature reconvenes in January.

“In Tennessee, they did the right thing,” Carlson told Valley News Live’s Berg last month.

GOP Gubernatorial contender Doug Burgum recently stated that suing the federal government over the refugee resettlement program on Tenth Amendment grounds “is an option that deserves consideration.”

Burgum, a highly successful technology entrepreneur who sold Fargo, North Dakota based Great Plains Software to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001, focused on the costs to the state of North Dakota associated with the refugee resettlement program.

“North Dakota has a right to understand what’s happening within our borders, especially when these federal decisions affect our cities, school districts, and health care providers,” Burgum said in a statement earlier this month.

The Obama administration shows no concern for the financial costs the federal refugee resettlement program imposes on states. It can’t guarantee that the resettled refugees, many of whom are Muslims from countries with active Islamist terrorist organizations, have been properly vetted. And it’s working to increase the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S., even speeding up the vetting time for them from two years to three months. YThese are all factors leading to pockets of resistance around the country.

Hoeven is not the only member of Congress who does not seem to understand how the federal refugee resettlement program works. In fact, hardly any members of Congress seem to have such an understanding. That may be the most obvious reason to explain why Congress continues to fund the VOLAGS who operate it to the tune of $1 billion a year.

Fortunately, the Tenth Amendment provides states with the opportunity to push back against federal overreach forced upon them by the Executive Branch and simply not resisted by the Legislative Branch.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.