Over the past few months there has been a lot of discussion about refugees and resettlement. But not much is said about the logistical problems the refugees have to overcome. For example, how exactly do they get to the United States?
The answer is that they have to travel—and that costs money. For those who can’t afford to cover the cost themselves, the U.S. government issues interest-free loans through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. The loan repayments are due every month, starting six months after they enter the country, and can be spread out over 5-6 years.
As with any debt, though, sometimes people don’t pay what they owe. The government then turns the debt over to a collection agency—which is often a nonprofit group that helps to resettle refugees.
There are currently nine faith-based resettlement agencies that have debt-collection operations. All of them charge the same rate as private-sector debt collectors: 25 percent of all they recoup for the government.
Is it unethical for faith-based groups to collect debts on a group they are dedicated to serve? Some people think so and consider the collections a conflict of interest. As G. Jeffrey Macdonald of Religion News Service writes,
This debt collection practice is coming under increased scrutiny as agencies occupy a growing stage in the public square, where they argue America has a moral obligation to resettle thousands of at-risk Syrian refugees. Some observers say the call to moral action rings hollow when these agencies stand to benefit financially.
“It’s money-producing, and I do find that troubling,” said Ronald Simkins, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University. “It adds a perception of conflict of interest. Certainly for their advocacy it can become that. … It becomes, in some sense, self-serving in the end.”
Whether the practice is self-serving is debatable. But it’s certainly lucrative. As MacDonald notes, in the Episcopal Church collections from refugees account for 1.7 percent of budgeted nongovernmental revenues, or $721,000 a year on average. From 2013 through 2015, the haul from refugees was $400,000 higher than expected and helped create a projected $3 million surplus for the church.
Back in April, when I heard about this program, I initially found the idea of a Christian denomination serving a debt collector rather off-putting. I still think that because churches have a role in the disciplining of its members (including church discipline over failure to pay debts), local churches and denominational bodies should not be in the business of direct collections.
However, I do think that having faith-based organizations involved in the debt collection process is beneficial, both for taxpayers and for the refugees. Such non-profit groups often work closely with refugees and are more likely to have direct knowledge of the financial situation of the debtor. Most private debt collectors would not care if the default is due to poor financial decisions or because of genuine financial problems, such as emergency medical bills. But faith-based debt collectors would care (or at least should) and would be in a position to provide necessary help or relief.
The only concern I would have is with the process being completely transparent. As long as the process is transparent and the debt collection tactics are ethical, there is nothing morally wrong with faith-based groups being involved in collections. I agree with Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who says,
What they have to be able to justify is that 25 percent rate. They have to be honest and say: ‘This is what these services have been shown to be worth on the open market, (and) we are using the revenue that they are generating in order to provide all of our services.’ They have to be open about that.