Refugee Crisis: Helping new arrivals comes with heavy costs, consequences

By Peter Nunez on October 15, 2015

San Diego Union Tribune, October 10, 2015.

News reports from Europe and the Middle East continue to document the refugee crisis confronting the European Union resulting from the civil war in Syria and continued violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding countries. The EU members are in conflict over how to respond to the flood of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people fleeing the devastation of their homelands.

Some countries have thrown open their doors to welcome these refugees, while others have erected fences and walls to keep them out. And those that have opened their doors the widest are facing internal pressures from their own citizens, who worry about the impact of accepting so many people from countries and cultures unlike their own. Some have reduced the amount of financial aid normally available to refugees, since the cost of supporting so many will be enormous. Others worry about the impact on their labor markets and economy, while others worry about the potential threat of terrorist violence.

In response to this humanitarian crisis, President Obama will authorize an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year – on top of the 70,000 refugees already approved. Additional proposals would result in the United States accepting 100,000 refugees each year into the future, a number not seen since the Cuban Mariel Boatlift of the 1970s or the post-Vietnam War era.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, a refugee is someone who:

Is located outside of the United States

Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States

Demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group

Is not firmly resettled in another country

Is admissible to the United States

The United States has always been the most generous country in the world in allowing immigrants and refugees entry into this "shining city on a hill." We admit more legal immigrants each year than the rest of the world combined; we admit two-thirds of all refugees resettled permanently worldwide. So the president's proposal is not out of character for this great country.

According to the most recent data available, California resettled nearly 5,000 refugees in 2011. Texas was the only state with more refugees. San Diego ranked first in California, with more than 2,100 refugee admissions, according to data from the state Department of Social Services.

But there are costs and consequences associated with refugee resettlement that should not be overlooked. According to a statement by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., at a recent Senate hearing, "Once here with refugee status, these individuals can claim any job and collect any federal welfare benefit. Recent statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement indicate that 75 percent of refugees receive food stamps and more than half receive free health care and cash welfare. For refugees from the Middle East, the numbers are even higher: more than 90 percent of recent Mideast refugees draw food stamps and about 70 percent receive free health care and cash welfare."

By contrast, legal immigrants are barred from many of the welfare and public assistance programs for which refugees are eligible.

According to Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation, "Extended out over the next 50 years, these additional 10,000 migrants would cost U.S. taxpayers $6.5 billion over the course of the migrants' lifetime."

There is also the "cost" of fully complying with the process of approving refugee applications. Refugees must apply before they enter this country, proving that they qualify, and that they are not barred from admission because of their previous activities. Normally background checks would be conducted by the appropriate federal agency, but that will be especially difficult in dealing with Syrian applicants, given the chaotic conditions in Syria. How, then, do we ensure that hidden among this multitude of legitimate applicants there are no terrorists using this crisis to find a way into our communities?

And what about the numbers? The U.S. has been admitting 1 million legal immigrants every year for 25 years, with no end in sight. Illegal immigration continues, with 2.5 million new illegal aliens having entered the country since this president took office. Adding another 100,000 refugees – during a time when wages and benefits for low-skilled workers is a national embarrassment and job creation is weak at best – makes little sense. It's time for Congress to reduce legal immigration at least by the number of refugees admitted.

This refugee crisis speaks to the humanitarian instinct in most Americans, who most likely will support our historic role in helping those who need help the most. But in admitting more refugees, the people want the government to act in the national interest, to do its job to keep this country safe and to do so in a way that does not make the lives of Americans more difficult.