Former Vice President Joe Biden’s pick to serve as director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, once argued that America’s refusal to accept refugees in sufficient numbers posed a long-term threat to national security.
Haines, who will become the nation’s first female intelligence chief if confirmed by the Senate, made the remarks at a June 2016 event hosted by Human Rights First, a nonprofit dedicated to providing legal representation for asylum seekers. At the time, Haines was deputy national security adviser to then-President Barack Obama. In that role, she was tasked with overseeing the administration’s refugee resettlement policy.
In her remarks, which were officially meant to commemorate World Refugee Day, Haines said that both she and the president understand that “some are concerned that our refugee program will make us more vulnerable to terrorism.” While such worries needed to be taken “seriously,” Haines claimed they were nonetheless inaccurate.
“I want to talk to you about today is why I believe that our refugee policy, rather than undermining our national security, actually increases it,” she said, adding that “increasing the number of refugees that we resettle in the United States every year” was not only right, “but good policy and a smart investment in our future.”
Haines proceeded to argue that the ever-increasing numbers of refugees around the globe, more than 60 million as of that time, was a problem that would impact more than just countries in Europe.
“In brief, the migrant crisis fundamentally threatens to destabilize regions and collapse fragile states that ultimately may develop into far more pernicious national security threats to the United States,” she said.
According to Haines’ view, the influx of refugees to host-countries that lack the resources to care for them effectively would breed political instability and transnational crime. Such outcomes, Haines argued, would only benefit violent extremists.
“Groups like ISIL and al Qaeda insist that the West is at war with Islam. It’s a core element of their twisted narrative,” she said. “And, like other communities with no access to opportunity … disaffected refugees may find themselves targeted by these messages.”
“Furthermore, the data shows that homegrown terrorism poses a bigger threat to the United States than radicalized refugees — and diaspora communities can be our best defense and early warning system,” Haines added.
In order to mitigate such risks to national security, Haines told those at the event that the federal government would have to partner with its allies to not only welcome more refugees, but also address the root causes for why so many chose to leave their homelands in the first place.
“We want to double the number of refugee resettlement slots available worldwide, so that the most vulnerable individuals and families have a legal and orderly way to seek a durable solution to their plight,” she said.
The Biden transition team did not return requests for comment on this story.
Haines comments come back into the spotlight as Biden and his incoming national security team are planning to break with President Donald Trump on foreign policy. One of the areas most likely to see a divergence will be refugee policy.
Trump, who campaigned for office on a platform promising to prioritize U.S. workers, has shrunk the number of incoming refugees to levels unseen since 1980. The president and his allies have argued that a tight labor market benefits workers already in the country by pushing companies to invest in skill training and development. It also has the benefit of boosting wages, as there is a smaller pool of workers competing for open positions.
The president’s policy differs from that of his predecessor. During Obama’s tenure in the White House, the number of displaced persons being resettled in the U.S. increased drastically. Between 2008 and 2017, more than 67,000 refugees on average were admitted into the country. The total would have been larger if Republicans had not stymied Obama’s efforts to admit 110,000 displaced persons, most notably from Syria, during his final year in office.
Studies estimate that it costs taxpayers more than $64,000 over five years to resettle an individual refugee. To resettle an entire family, the cost estimate rises to more than $257,000 over five years.
Complicating matters is that most of the refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. in recent years have lower educational attainment rates than prior migrants. Data shows that in 1996, only 35 percent of incoming refugees lacked a high school diploma. By 2015, the number had skyrocketed to 51 percent. Those educational attainment levels are one reason why 56 percent of refugee households received food stamps or other government benefits in 2015.