National Review Online, November 16, 2015
In his Monday press conference on the latest Islamist atrocities, President Obama said that the United States must "welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety" and that "slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values." The Democrats vying to succeed him said the same thing in their televised debate Saturday.
One problem: Relocating refugees from the Middle East to the U.S. is morally wrong.
This isn't due to the security threats posed by any resettlement program from the Islamic world. While it is impossible — literally impossible — to adequately screen refugees from Syria (or Iraq or Yemen or Afghanistan or Somalia), it would be wrong to admit them even if we could keep out the terrorists and their supporters that constitute such a significant share of those countries' populations.
Sure, welcoming refugees here makes us feel good. Newspapers run heart-warming stories of overcoming adversity; churches embrace the objects of their charity; politicians can wax nostalgic about their grandparents.
But the goal of refugee assistance is not to make us feel good. It is to assist as many people as possible with the resources available. And resettling a relative handful of them here to help us bask in our own righteousness means we are sacrificing the much larger number who could have been helped with the same resources.
The difference in cost is enormous. The Center for Immigration Studies, which I head, recently calculated that it costs twelve times as much to resettle a refugee in the United States as it does to care for the same refugee in a neighboring country in the Middle East. The five-year cost to American taxpayers of resettling a single Middle Eastern refugee in the United States is conservatively estimated to be more than $64,000, compared with U.N. figures that indicate it costs about $5,300 to provide for that same refugee for five years in his native region.
In other words, each refugee we bring to the United States means that eleven others are not being helped with that money. Faced with twelve drowning people, only a monster would send them a luxurious one-man boat rather than twelve life jackets. And yet, with the best of intentions, that is exactly what we are doing when we choose one lucky winner to resettle here.
Some will object that we can do both — relocate some refugees here and care for others in their native region. But money is not infinite. Every dollar the government spends is borrowed and will have to be paid back by our grandchildren. What's more, the U.N. estimates that there are 60 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. Clearly, whatever amount we allocate to refugee protection will provide for only a fraction of the people in need.
Given these limitations on resources, it is wrong — morally wrong — to use those resources to resettle one refugee here when we could help twelve closer to their home.
There is little we can do to minimize the costs of resettling refugees. True, the private contractors the State Department pays to oversee the process are making a good living off of refugee resettlement, but reining them in won't make much difference. Most of the costs come from social services; according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 90 percent of refugees from the Middle East receive food stamps and nearly three-quarters are on Medicaid or some other taxpayer-funded health care.
This should come as no surprise. Refugees arrive destitute and often traumatized. They have little education (those from the Middle East have an average of only 10.5 years of schooling), which means that even if they find work, it will pay little. And because they're poor — almost all have incomes only slightly above the poverty line — they pay little in taxes.
Of course, we don't resettle refugees for economic reasons but for humanitarian ones. And since the goal is humanitarian, a wise steward must use his resources so that they generate the greatest humanitarian return. It's also true that refugees brought here will live better than those even in well-run in refugee camps in the region. But the goal of refugee protection is to provide people adequate succor until they can return home, not maximize opportunity for a select few.
Even the administration seems aware of the trade-off between resettlement and overseas assistance. Last month, White House spokesman Josh Earnest answered a question about administration plans to relocate 10,000 Syrians to the U.S. this year (and about the pressure to admit many more than that) by noting that "the most effective response to this urgent humanitarian situation is for the international community to ramp up our humanitarian efforts in the region and even in Syria."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports a $2.5 billion funding shortfall in caring for Syrian refugees in the Middle East. The five-year cost of resettling just 39,000 Syrians in the U.S. would erase the entire current UNHCR shortfall. Security concerns aside, it is morally unjustifiable to help the few at the expense of the many.