President Donald Trump told the U.N. on Tuesday that it’s too expensive for the U.S. to resettle refugees, but VICE News has obtained a study from his own administration that shows refugees generate tens of billions worth of long-term economic value for the country.
A draft report from the Department of Health and Human Services delivered to the White House in early September found that from 2005 to 2014 refugees contributed $269.1 billion in revenue “to all levels of government,” with a “net fiscal impact” of $63 billion after accounting for the costs of social services and resettlement.
A source provided an excerpt from the report to VICE News on the condition of anonymity. The source and others familiar with ongoing White House negotiations over a pending decision by the president on the maximum number of refugees will accept in the coming year said Trump officials, led by adviser Stephen Miller, have attempted to suppress the report because the findings undermine the argument that refugee resettlement is too costly.
As first reported last week by VICE News, Trump — at the urging of Miller and officials from the Department of Homeland Security — is expected to slash the number of refugees the U.S. will accept in the 2018 fiscal year to 50,000 or fewer, which would be the lowest cap in modern history and less than half as many as President Obama agreed to take in 2017. A final decision is due by Oct. 1 and still requires a consultation with Congress, which has not yet been scheduled.
Miller, who has a long history of promoting anti-immigrant policies, has attempted to sideline the State Department, the National Security Council, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and other key stakeholders in the decision-making process.
“It’s been a huge fight,” said the source who provided the leaked report, describing the conflict between the White House and national security agencies over its findings. “There’s an effort to make this a domestic policy issue versus what it is, which is a national security and foreign policy issue.”
“There’s an effort to make this a domestic policy issue versus what it is, which is a national security and foreign policy issue.”
The New York Times, which first described the leaked report on Monday evening, cited unnamed sources as saying that Miller “personally intervened in the discussions on the refugee cap to ensure that only the costs — not any fiscal benefit — of the program were considered.” Miller also reportedly requested a meeting to discuss the report.
Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Miller said he was too busy to comment and would call back later. He did not follow up or respond to a subsequent call.
A spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the division of Health and Human Services that oversees refugee resettlement, referred our inquiry about the leaked report to the agency’s assistant secretary for public affairs, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
A White House official disputed the findings of the leaked report, arguing that the Department Health and Human Services could not accurately account for taxes paid by refugees and other purported contributions to the economy. The official provided another report from the agency, which will reportedly be delivered to Congress later this month in support of a lowered cap on refugee resettlement, which showed that refugees took an average of $3,300 in per capita benefits over a 10-year period compared to $2,500 per person for the rest of the U.S. population
“This leak was delivered by someone with an ideological agenda, not someone looking at hard data,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement. “The actual report pursuant to the presidential memorandum shows that refugees with few skills coming from war-torn countries take more government benefits from the Department of Health and Human Services than the average population, and are not a net benefit to the U.S. economy.”
The leaked report excerpt notes that while refugees provide an overall net benefit to the federal government, they are “a net fiscal cost to state and local governments, with the cost estimated at $35.9 billion.” The report states that it “did not explore the effects of refugees on the broader economy and labor market,” and doesn’t estimate the “long-term impact” of bringing refugees to the U.S., or the costs and benefits associated with their children.
“This leak was delivered by someone with an ideological agenda, not someone looking at hard data.”
The report states that its findings are “comparable to existing research” on the subject. A study released in March by economists at Notre Dame University found that the average refugee receives about $86,000 in social support and costs roughly $14,000 to relocate over his or her first 20 years in the U.S., but they also pay nearly $122,000 per person in taxes, creating a net benefit of $21,195 for the federal government. Another study, released in August by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reached a nearly identical conclusion.
The financial case against refugees comes from the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization founded by a prominent white nationalist and labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a study released in November 2015, the group found that “in their first five years in the United States each refugee from the Middle East costs taxpayers $64,370 — 12 times what the UN estimates it costs to care for one refugee in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.” The study does not factor in taxes paid by refugees or note that refugees must pay back the cost of their transportation to the U.S.
It appears that Trump cited the Center for Immigration Studies analysis in his speech to the U.N. when he said that “for the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region.”
In a call Monday with reporters, Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president for public affairs at the refugee resettlement organization HIAS, argued that refugees are a boon for a local economies, especially when they are placed in “inner-city areas.”
“If you ask almost any mayor in the country, they’re very supportive of refugee resettlement, because refugees rent apartments, they open local businesses, they fill jobs.”
“They end up revitalizing the community,” Nezer said. “If you ask almost any mayor in the country, they’re very supportive of refugee resettlement, because refugees rent apartments, they open local businesses, they fill jobs.”
Others have argued that countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, which have absorbed millions of Syrian refugees, are already overburdened, and the U.S. simply cannot pay to keep refugees there while refusing to resettle them. Jordan alone has a backlog of more than 27,000 refugees awaiting resettlement, and many of those have undergone the intensive security screening process that can take nearly two years to complete.
Ryan Crocker, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon, said calls to keep refugees in the region and implement an even more extreme vetting process “becomes an excuse for some of our worst nativist instincts, just to keep piling on the requirements, so it cannot possibly be met in any reasonable timeframe.”
“The vetting process that we have in place is more than adequate,” Crocker said. “I think to go beyond that, you are simply setting up an impossible standard to basically keep people out no matter how they’re vetted… this is exactly what our enemies would like to see us do to help them make their case that we are anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, that everything they’ve said all along.”
Trump has worked to the curb the flow of refugees to the U.S. since his earliest days in office. He signed an executive order on January 27 that temporarily halted all refugee resettlement and tried to limit the total number of refugees would accept to 50,000. The executive order also called for the Secretary of State to “provide a report on the estimated long-term costs of the USRAP (United States Refugee Admissions Program) at the Federal, State, and local levels.”
The leaked HHS report was compiled in response to that request, multiple sources told VICE News.
Trump’s executive order, which sought to undermine the refugee cap of 110,000 set last year by Obama, was later partially rescinded due to legal challenges, and the case is currently pending before the Supreme Court. Now, as the sitting president, he has virtually unchecked authority to restrict refugee admissions next year. The State Department and National Security Council have input in the decision, but ultimately it’s up Trump.
One source familiar with discussions over the cap said that Miller and the Department of Homeland Security have advised Trump to set a limit of 40,000 refugees or fewer, but others, including leaders of the intelligence community, have pushed back, arguing that such a drastic cutback would jeopardize relationships with U.S. allies and create national security risk. The source added, however, Miller is controlling the process and could be the one who ultimately influences Trump’s thinking.
“The president can just cross all these [proposed limits] out and say zero or 15,000 or whatever,” the source said, “and the person with the last word is going to be Stephen Miller.”
Alex Thompson contributed reporting.