Refugees: A Cruel Numbers Game

How many refugees should the United States bring to our country each year?  President Trump says: far fewer than we have in the past. 

The White House recently announced the new target would be 45,000 refugees per year.  When President Obama left office, he had increased the number of refugees admitted to the United States each year from about 60,000 when he took office to 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 and proposed a jump to 110,000 – an increase that was reversed by President Trump after his first week in office.  Obama’s proposed ceiling was still nowhere near the historical record – more than 200,000 – reached in the Carter/Reagan era. 

In his address to the United Nations, President Trump correctly points out that with the same amount of money, more refugees can be helped overseas, closer to the countries they have fled.  The President is right to support international humanitarian efforts because most refugees do want to stay in neighboring countries until they can go home again.  For a portion of the world’s refugees, however, going home again may never be a viable option and staying put in the countries to which they’ve fled is difficult or downright dangerous.  Refugees severely burned by bombings in Syria need advanced medical care, torture victims need help with recovery, traumatized children need more stable homes, and lesbian and gay refugees may find that they continue to be persecuted even after they have fled.  For these refugees and their families, resettlement in America offers a chance for a fresh start in life.

The debate over lower numbers reveals a stunning lack of perspective and context.  The UN refugee agency has determined that nearly 1.2 million refugees are in need of resettlement.  Hundreds of thousands of foreign-born people enter the United States each day for tourism, business, to go to school or to visit relatives.  Last year more than 180 million people arrived and departed the United States.  Refugees are the most heavily vetted of any traveler to this country and many are horrified that they might be mistaken for would-be terrorists when they are fleeing persecution and killing.

Can we fit more refugees into our country this year?  Of course we can.  They represent a tiny fraction of the foreign-born residing in this country.  Can we afford it?  Yes, but it does require an up-front investment of funds.  We currently do this through a public-private partnership: with a mix of grants paid by Federal, State and local taxes, charitable giving and a travel loan that refugee families must pay back.  And what do we get for this investment?  Well, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that over a 20-year span, refugees pay on average $21,000 more in taxes than they actually take in public assistance.   A draft US government report concluding that refugees do pay significantly taxes over time has, reportedly, been suppressed by the White House.  At the same time, refugees contribute much more to our society: they are motivated workers and take hard-to-fill jobs, possess and share foreign language skills, start businesses and inject vitality into depressed neighborhoods or cities.

More profoundly, turning our backs on refugees betrays our history and who we are as a nation.  Refugees have found a place in America from the time of the Pilgrims, who fled religious persecution.  Turning away refugees also signals to other countries that they can do the same, thus undermining the 1951 refugee convention – put in place after the community of nations failed to rescue Hitler’s victims during World War II.

President Trump’s concern for the cost of resettling refugees is a pretense.  Claiming the money could be better spent elsewhere suggests that the Administration cares while disguising the anti-Muslim roots of its refugee policies that were on flagrant display during the campaign.  The President’s short-yet-intensely-damaging track record of cutting aid budgets, leaving senior State Department positions unfilled and issuing travel bans tell the real story and stands in sharp contrast to decades of bipartisan support for opening our doors to refugees.


Anne C. Richard is a visiting fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania and served as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration from 2012-2017.