So how much does it actually cost to resettle refugees? The nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures dug through the numbers recently and found that the Office of Refugee Resettlement has $1.56 billion to spend in fiscal 2015 — up from $587 million a decade ago.
A note here: Most of that money — and almost all of the increase — went to funding unaccompanied minors crossing the border from Mexico, which spiked to more than 24,500 in fiscal 2013 and led President Obama to call the influx an "urgent humanitarian crisis." The budget line for processing unaccompanied minors increased from $77.2 million in fiscal 2006 to $948 million in fiscal 2015. Excluding this money, funding for refugee resettlement has increased much more modestly.
The rest of the money in fiscal 2015 was split up for traditional refugee resettlement, including medical services and cash (about $300 million a year) and social services such as job and language training (about $150 million a year) among all the refugees coming to the United States — of which an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 this fiscal year are expected to be Syrians. Next year, Obama has plans to let in 10,000 Syrian refugees.
There's no tidy way to break down how much the U.S. spends per refugee, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement's communications department. The costs vary greatly by state, and the office might receive funds from the Department of State, or use some of that money for people who aren't considered refugees, like victims of trafficking.
But here's how the main budget items in resettling refugees break down now with our current count of refugees, courtesy of NCSL. Keep in mind that the United States resettled about 70,000 refugees in fiscal 2014:
Paying $582 million a year to resettle refugees is an unavoidable upfront cost if the United States wants to keep accepting refugees.
But going back to the conventional wisdom that refugees are financial burdens: Swanson cites research from Denmark to Uganda to Cleveland that found that they actually end up paying back their host countries by creating jobs (one study found that refugees are more likely to open small businesses) and encouraging their new neighbors to specialize in jobs they're better suited for, making economies run more efficiently. The studies found that refugees were either cost-neutral or cost-positive for their host countries. (Another little-known fact: Refugees must reimburse the United States for their flights.)
Of course, a major caveat, Swanson adds: It all depends on how countries deal with them. There are signs that the countries that take the longest to screen and process refugees end up paying the most in the long run. But that's a different story entirely.