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The Right Way to Count the Costs of US Refugee Resettlement

Refugees Bring Benefits, Not Just Costs

A protest at the San Francisco International Airport against Donald Trump’s January 2017 executive order on immigration, January 28, 2017. © 2017 Creative Commons/Daniel Arauz

President Trump has asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to report back to him on the costs of the refugee settlement program.

We’d like to help.

To that end, I co-signed a letter today with nine other refugee experts, including two former assistant secretaries of state who directed the refugee bureau in Republican and Democratic administrations and four former senior immigration and naturalization service officials in Republican and Democratic administrations – that we hope will allow for an honest assessment of the true costs.

Trump’s request – made last March – asked for recommendations to reduce those costs and for a report comparing the costs of refugee resettlement with assistance programs in countries of first arrival.

While our letter expresses support for fiscally responsible programming, it also cautions against poorly designed studies that could lead to misleading outcomes. In addition to the costs, we ask State Department analysts to consider the benefits, observing that “resettled refugees also enter the workforce in large numbers, pay taxes, start businesses that expand local employment, and help to revitalize struggling communities.”

We have also taken pains to make clear the significant distinction between refugee resettlement and support for refugees in countries of first asylum – one is simply not the alternative to the other. First asylum is normally a temporary measure, but resettlement is a long-term solution. The US resettlement program brings other benefits as well, such as encouraging other governments to resettle refugees or to integrate them locally. As we put it, resettlement can mean “the difference between stagnation leading to higher human costs and an actual solution that empowers people and enables them to become productive citizens. The cost of a fish might be less than that of a fishing pole, but only the latter will free the beneficiary from dependency into the future.”

Trump has made no secret of his antipathy to refugee resettlement or of his desire to drastically slash the program. But this letter at least seeks an honest assessment of its value rather than one based on faulty assumptions and foregone conclusions. 

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