Neighborly Disagreement: Comparing the U.S. and Canada's Responses to Refugees
Given the recent, highly publicized terror attacks in Europe, major scrutiny has been placed on US and Canadian refugee policy. In both countries, the issue of whether to let refugees immigrate has been debated. Officials in the United States have pledged to accept 10,000 refugees in 2016, while officials in Canada have pledged to accept 25,000. Private sponsors in both countries will pay for much of the immigration and settlement. These sponsors will pay for over half of the costs in the US and 40 percent of the costs for the first wave of immigrants in Canada. The US and Canada both use the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as preliminary acceptance tools and both countries will financially support refugees, even if only for a short period of time. The tone of acceptance varies between the countries from warm and welcoming to cold and hostile.
Officials expect Canada’s plan to support refugees to cost $470 million US dollars (680 million Canadian dollars). Private Canadian organizations will foot the bill for the first 10,000 refugees let into Canada. These 10,000 refugees make up 40 percent of the refugees Canada currently plans to accept. The government of Canada will supply funding for the other 15,000 immigrants. Canadian officials have stated that if private funding is available, more refugees will be allowed into the country, bringing estimates of number of refugees to potentially between 35,000 to 50,000.
The US plan for acceptance of refugees also heavily relies on private sponsorship, over half of the expenses being paid for privately. The annual federal budget for refugee assistance in the US is $950 million, which works out to $95,000 per refugee, based on the stated 10,000 refugee limit. However, Syrian refugees are not the only refugees helped by this fund, reducing the amount of money available per person.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has provided referrals to the US Department of Homeland Security. These referrals are used as a starting point, with the countries using the lists provided by the UN to choose whom to screen for security. The US requires refugees to undergo extensive background checks and security interviews. The US has created a database of Syrian refugees and allows Canada to access the database for its own acceptance process. In the United States, the process of accepting refugees lasts anywhere from 18 to 24 months.
Canada has chosen to accept almost exclusively women, children, and those who are especially vulnerable, including complete families, LGBT people, and endangered women. 500 workers have already been sent to the recently set up refugee camps in order to aid in the interview and recording process. Canadian officials cross-check their interviews with existing Canadian and US databases.
The United States has already accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees, who have been spread out across the country, based on family ties as well as skill sets. Many refugees are being relocated to mid sized cities that are affordable to live in. In fact, Boise, Idaho has accepted more refugees since 2012 than New York City and Los Angeles combined. The US government, along with private sponsors and agencies will provide a $1,000 allowance for the first 90 days of living in the United States. The government will also pay for transportation costs, although refugees are required to start paying back the transportation costs after six months of living in the US. In Canada, immigrants will briefly spend time in temporary barracks set up on military bases. Eventually, the government has plans to move the vast majority of refugees to large cities, rather than the mid-sized and small cities the US will send them to.
One of the most important aspects of the refugee situation is the receptiveness of the two countries. On the day the first jet full of Syrian refugees arrived, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the new arrivals at the airport, shaking hands and handing out cold weather clothes. Of the general public’s attitudes towards accepting refugees, Trudeau said: “There’s a large amount of support. I’m not naive, it’s not 100% but its a large proportion of Canadians who are onside, enthusiastic and contributing to this.”
The receptive attitude of many Canadians is no surprise, given that in 2011, 6.8 million residents of Canada were foreign-born. These 6.8 million people make up 20.6% of Canada’s population. This high number gives Canada the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the G8 group of industrialized nations. In 2010, according to the US Census Bureau, 12.9% of United States citizens were foreign-born. The large difference percentage-wise could possibly explain the difference in how warmly the two countries accept refugees.
Historically, the people of the United States have not always been receptive to refugees. A Gallup poll from 1939 shows that 26% of Americans were in favor of accepting refugee children from Germany. 67% of Americans opposed accepting them. In fact, out of 15 Gallup polls taken since 1939, the only times more American were in favor of accepting refugees than opposed to it were in 1979 and 1999 from Vietnam and Kosovo.
Government policy on refugee intake in Canada is supported by a majority of the country, but just barely. A February 2016 poll showed that 52% of Canadians support plans to resettle thousands of refugees, while 44% were opposed. Trudeau and his government remain committed to accepting and helping many thousands of refugees take haven in Canada.
Across the border, the United States can be seen as sending mixed messages. President Obama and his administration have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to supporting Syrian refugees, while many state governors have voiced opposition to taking in any immigrants from Syria. 31 US governors have stated that they do not support Obama’s decision to accept refugees and many authorized regulations against accepting refugees. However, state governors do not have the power to control who enters their state once a person has legally arrived in the United States. Constitutionally, the authority to admit refugees is given to the federal government, in this case, the Obama administration. Regardless of attitude, both the United States and Canada will be accepting large numbers of refugees from Syria, and need to figure out how to provide the best quality of life possible for their new residents.