Do refugees fly to the US for free?

Your tax dollars!

No, well maybe yes (sometimes).   They do get interest free government loans for their airfare.

I’ve reported on refugee airfare from time to time over the last five years, but what got me thinking about it again this morning was a puff piece about refugees speaking to students at Flagler College.  And, by the way, there have been a flurry of refugee puff pieces recently so there must be a PR push going on from the contractors who fear losing customers if the public gets too weary of paying for all this.

Here is the line from the Flagler College puff piece:

“They pay their way to get here, the government doesn’t buy their plane tickets. They take out loans,” Michelle Karolak, the Refugee Resettlement Director of Catholic Charities, said.

That is not exactly right, but you will see below how just giving a bare bones answer can be misleading (and from Catholic Charities no less!).

The International Organization for Migration (also a federal contractor) actually purchases the ticket with money received from the US State Department.   Here is a pretty good accounting of that.  USCRI is the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, but you could replace USCRI in the excerpt below with any of the top nine federal contractors including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For his plane ticket alone, Ngoma was indebted to the U.S. government for $1,300 since it had fronted that amount after agreeing to his resettlement in Chicago.

The U.S. government is reimbursed for the costs expended on U.S.-bound refugees’ plane tickets by the refugees’ sponsor agencies. These agencies, such as the USCRI, set up individualized payment plans for each refugee to collect what is owed.

Historically, the problem with this revolving loan fund is that low collection and repayment rates have resulted due to the lack of law enforcement and inefficient collection methods used by voluntary agencies. According to Nancy Kingsbury at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Secretary of State made policy changes in 1987 to address the problem/.

“These changes ensure [among other things] that the sponsor agencies 1) establish loan criteria and milestones specifying when uncollected notes are delinquent and in default and 2) submit to State for further action the names and addresses of those refugees whose loans become delinquent,” Kingsbury explains.

Soon after settling into their new locations, refugees are required by the USCRI to sign a Promissory Note—a document legally binding them to individualized payment plans to pay off what is owed. To track the process, the USCRI assigns a loan ID number to each refugee and corresponding payment plan.

The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration requires that the agencies submit quarterly reports of these loan collections indicating amounts collected and remitted to the IOM. If an agency fails to comply with any of the Bureau’s provisions, it risks being prohibited by the Bureau from utilizing funds received under this agreement for future resettlements.

So the refugee or refugee families arrive with oftentimes extremely large debts to repay.   The resettlement contractor is their bill collector.  Some pay and some don’t.  The State Department has been reluctant to report just how much they ultimately receive.

Enter the US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Here is the really funny part about the comment from Michelle Karolak of Catholic Charities at Flagler College!  She conveniently forgot to tell the audience that  the collection agency gets to keep some of the government’s (your!) money for their services collecting the federal loan.

Let’s have a look at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops 2011 annual report on their refugee program.

The USCCB by its own account resettles 25% of the refugees resettled each year.  On page 20, note that their total revenue for the year was $72,102,484, and of that, you, the taxpayer, gave them $66,723,452 (or roughly 93% of all their revenue for refugee resettlement).   

Their second largest source of income ($3,751,295) is for travel loan fees!  So they strong-armed the refugees for the airfare loan money and got to keep a chunk (again of taxpayer money) for themselves!

Their private charitable gifts are a tiny portion of their revenue.  So, when I hear the Bishops squawk about what Obama is doing to them, I have no sympathy.  When you take the government cash, you are no longer free!