America’s Cold Shoulder

Do we really put America First when we turn away refugees?

Five Figures to Consider

10,548 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in the first half of fiscal year 2018, down 75% from 2017
22.5 million refugees worldwide
$21,000 is the net average tax contribution over 20 years of refugees who arrived in U.S. as adults
36 months is the current vetting time for a U.S. refugee
0 is the number of lethal terrorist attacks by a refugee since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980

The U.S. accepted 44 Syrian refugees in the first six months of this fiscal year. That’s a rounding error relative to the 11 million displaced Syrians in the world today, but representative of our current “America First Refugee Program.” The number of refugees accepted by the U.S. is plunging, and non-profits like Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque are closing refugee resettlement operations. In the first six months of this fiscal year, the U.S. resettled just 10,548 refugees, a drop of 75% from the previous year. If current rates hold, 2018 will see the fewest refugees enter the U.S. since the inception of the U.S. Refugee Program in 1980. Meanwhile the worldwide refugee count of 22.5 million is the highest it’s been since World War II.

In his “America First” announcement President Donald Trump argued that we’ve got to cut back on refugees in order to deal with the 270,000 asylum seekers currently within U.S. borders. (By international law, the U.S. cannot turn away without a hearing those who show up at our borders with claims of persecution at home.) But processing asylees, who are mostly from Central American countries wracked by crime and gang violence, needn’t come at the cost of the refugee program. The Refugee Corps of Immigration Services, which conducts interviews outside the U.S., is separate from the Asylum Division, which gives interviews inside the U.S. Both have made changes to improve their capacity within the past year. Nevertheless, the Administration is downsizing America’s refugee program, recently reducing the annual cap to 45,000, down from the 70,000 to 100,000 range over the previous decade.

One reason given for the reduction is the financial strain refugees place on Americans. But is the refugee program really too costly?  In their early years many refugees rely on cash assistance, Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. But refugee dependency wanes over time. Most refugees are working within six months of arriving in the U.S. and after about six years refugees have higher employment rates than similarly-aged, U.S.-born residents. After 10 years, they have statistically indistinguishable use of social welfare programs. And after 20 years, they have typically contributed $21,000 more in taxes than they have received in resettlement costs and benefits. Shall we go on? Refugees start new businesses at a higher rate than the U.S. born population, and refugees who have been here more than 25 years have a median household income of $67,000, 26% higher than the U.S. median. In 2015, refugees earned a collective $77.2 billion in household income, paid $20.9 billion in taxes and spent much of the rest on housing, food, entertainment and manufactured goods.

But what about security? Aren’t refugees a terrorist threat? The refugees is already the most vetted population entering the U.S. bar none. The Bush, Obama and Trump administrations all increased the refugee screening protocol, and under Trump the average processing time has lengthened from 18 – 24 months to 36 months. The process includes background checks by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Defense and multiple U.S. intelligence agencies. Such thorough vetting is one reason immigrants in general are incarcerated at a lower rate than native born Americans. Most importantly, refugees have been responsible for zero lethal terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. Since 2011, the Administration reports, at least 20 refugees have been arrested or removed from the U.S. based on terrorism investigations. Thank you, U.S. law enforcement. According to the Cato Institute, your chance of dying in the U.S. in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion.

It is a sad fact that fewer than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled. The thousands that we do accept each year don’t do much to alleviate the stress on the developing regions that host the vast majority. Turkey is hosting the largest number, with 2.9 million refugees, and one in six people currently living in Lebanon is a refugee. So why should the U.S. accept any refugees at all when our capacity pales in comparison to the size of the problem? For one, argues the conservative Heritage Foundation, accepting refugees improves our relationships with other countries and supports our ability to assert leadership in foreign crises. For another, refugees who languish in refugee camps for years or decades are more likely to be radicalized and become terrorists. Accepting those we can, particularly Muslim refugees who have been especially impacted by current U.S. immigration policies, undermines the ISIS recruiting narrative that the U.S. is anti-Muslim. Finally, a lot of Americans want to live out the religious maxim of welcoming the stranger and the Statue of Liberty’s call to welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  

Scaling back our refugee program is not good for America. Refugees are the most vetted U.S. immigrant group. They contribute to the U.S. economy, strengthen our foreign ties and enable us to fulfill an American ideal of helping those in crisis.


Brookings Institution, Cato Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy, International Rescue Committee, Heritage Foundation, HIAS, Human Rights First, Lawfare, Migration Policy Institute, National Bureau of Economic Research, New American Economy, Peter J. Peterson Foundation, Pew Research Center, Politifact, Refugee Council USA, The White House, UNHCR, Urban Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of State: Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration