Why Hide the Facts About Refugee Costs and Benefits?
No enterprise in the United States—or any market economy—could survive if it only counted the costs of doing business and ignored the benefits side of the ledger. But that is exactly how some Trump administration officials are insisting on evaluating the refugee resettlement program, according to a report in The New York Times this week.
White House officials opposed to refugee resettlement rejected a study by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), according to the Times, because it does not support their argument that resettlement is an unreasonable fiscal burden. Indeed, the 55-page draft shows the opposite, finding that refugees brought in $63 billion more revenue to federal, state, and local governments than they cost over the 2005-14 period surveyed. In place of this analysis, HHS submitted to the White House a three-page document that looked only at HHS expenditures on refugees (such as Medicaid), ignoring taxes paid by refugees and other receipts.
This three-page document can be viewed at best as a careful cherry-picking of statistics as the White House seeks to marshal its case for further deep cuts to the resettlement program. An announcement anticipated in the coming days could drop the fiscal 2018 ceiling well below the already historically low 50,000 level set earlier this year when President Trump slashed the 110,000 allocation for FY 2017 set under the prior administration.
The full HHS report, by contrast, is a well-researched, serious piece of work—far from the accusations of political motivation suggested by a White House spokesman who, without a trace of irony, attributed the leak of the report to someone with an “ideological agenda, not someone looking at hard data.”
The HHS report, however, does take an unbiased look at hard data. Mandated by an executive order Trump signed in January to conduct a study on the cost of the resettlement program at local, state, and national levels, HHS tasked the office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) with the assignment. ASPE is the nonideological research arm of HHS, and is not directly connected to the delivery of services to refugees or other populations.
The report relies upon the Transfer Income Model (TRIM), which has been used since 1973—under Republican and Democratic administrations alike—to produce credible estimates of public benefit use by certain U.S. populations as well as their tax payments. The model conducts microsimulations using the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), and has been refined over decades to accurately identify refugees and other immigrant populations, account for underestimation of benefits use, and model tax expenditures as well as contributions. It is the gold standard for modeling the contributions and costs of different populations, including immigrants and refugees.
Since almost all resettled refugees arrive in the United States with nothing, it is not surprising that in their first years here, they rely more heavily than U.S. citizens on public benefits. But our research at MPI shows that refugees integrate successfully, and that as their years of U.S. residence increase, their public benefits usage declines and income levels rise, approaching parity with the U.S.-born population. In fact, refugee men are more likely to work than U.S-born men, while refugee women work at the same rate as their U.S.-born counterparts.
The economic self-sufficiency that is the core goal of the U.S. refugee resettlement program is thus being met, as both the MPI and HHS reports attest. Refugees are not the fiscal burden that some in the White House suggest.
The Trump White House is not focused exclusively on the economic costs of refugees, however, arguing also that the resettlement program could provide a path for terrorist infiltration. The fact is that no refugee resettled in this country has ever killed an American (or foreign resident) in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. In this respect, too, the administration chooses to ignore the facts and highlight nonexistent risks—while ignoring the benefits that refugees bring to the United States as a living demonstration of American values, support to our friends and allies, and U.S. leadership in the world—as well as remarkable cultural vibrancy. As the administration prepares to announce the refugee admissions ceiling for the next fiscal year, which starts October 1, it should publicly share the findings of the ASPE report. The American public deserves an honest and full accounting, so it can see for itself the costs and benefits of refugee resettlement.