One of Donald Trump’s first public comments about refugees came when he was a candidate for office, in November 2015, after the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
“Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country,” Trump said, piggybacking on incorrect early news reports suggesting that one of the Paris attackers fit that description. Using an acronym for the Islamic State, Trump asked, “Who knows who they are — some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?”
By that point, the total number of refugees that had been admitted from Syria in 2015 was less than 2,000.
Nonetheless, it’s a theme he returned to regularly, lambasting Hillary Clinton for proposing to allow more refugees into the country and regularly suggesting that the number of refugees needed to be limited, particularly from Middle Eastern countries racked by violence.
Among the arguments the administration has made is that allowing refugees into the United States is simply too costly. Trump’s first budget proposal as president notes that refugees are “instantly eligible for time-limited cash benefits and numerous non-cash Federal benefits, including food assistance through SNAP, medical care, and education, as well as a host of State and local benefits.” Refugees are often enrolled in Medicaid and food stamp programs, the document continued. “The way that refugee spending is typically budgeted for makes it difficult to attribute the full fiscal costs” of allowing them, it argues.
So, in the first draft of Trump’s immigration ban, Trump ordered the secretary of state to “provide a report on the estimated long-term costs of the [U.S. refugee program] at the Federal, State, and local levels” within a year of the ban being lifted. When the ban was revised in March, a presidential memorandum requested that State work with Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services to tally those numbers.
So, HHS created a report that looked at the question. Its findings? Refugees contributed about $269 billion in revenue to federal, state and local governments between 2005 and 2014, and, on net, contributed $63 billion more to the government than they used in services. (Suggesting that the costs of those services was around $206 billion.)
We only know this, though, because the New York Times obtained a copy of the report. It apparently never got to the White House and, the Times reports, some advocates for the refugee program “believe the report was suppressed.”
Among those questioning the validity of the report was Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who the Times reports “personally intervened in the discussions on the refugee cap to ensure that only the costs — not any fiscal benefit — of the program were considered, according to two people familiar with the talks.” It was Miller who last month was pressed for data to back up his claims about the negative economic effects of immigrants and was unable to do so.
Contacted by the Times, a White House spokesman insisted that “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.”
It’s true that refugees cost more on a per capita basis — $3,300 to $2,500 according to the report — but, then, they’re refugees, arriving in the country from conflict zones. That’s the intent of the program: to provide direct assistance to those fleeing violence and allowing them to start a new life. The leaked HHS report, though, suggests that the long-term effects of that resettlement are a net positive, contrary to what the White House spokesman, Raj Shah, claimed.
Shah also expressed frustration that the report had been leaked.
“This leak was delivered by someone with an ideological agenda, not someone looking at hard data,” he told the Times.
Apparently when the White House was renovated in the summer, it was reconstructed entirely in glass and decorated mostly with stones.