Refugees and the Limits of Economic Logic

Taking in people who have no safe home isn't about GDP growth; it's about basic decency.

Patrick Fallon / Reuters

The Trump administration’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries has inspired passionate arguments about the value of immigrants to the United States. Following the order, I saw many people tweeting images of Steve Jobs to remind others that he was the son of a Syrian immigrant. On Facebook, I saw others sharing the statistic that immigrants founded half of America’s billion-dollar startups and had received more than three-quarters of the patents on information technology and drug compounds.

These observations support an important and well-meaning thesis: Immigration is good for the economy. If foreign workers stop coming, the U.S. population will flatten or shrink, the world’s brightest students will remain overseas, and long-term economic growth will fall off a cliff. And it’s true: Trump’s latest executive order could have exactly this deleterious effect.

But while liberals are comfortable making economic arguments for immigration (while conservatives often make economic arguments against it) the case for America’s refugee policy requires a different, yet equally forceful, defense. Most refugees are endangered individuals who are more likely to be a net drain on federal funds for many years than eventual economic juggernauts. And that’s okay. The case for providing asylum to the world’s needy is not a long-term investment, it’s a moral imperative.

America’s refugee policy has a long checkered history, in which economic and moral fears have battled each other. For every inspiring statistic, there is a dispiriting historical example. On the one hand, the Statue of Liberty is not an empty metaphor. The U.S. accounts for half of all world refugees who are permanently resettled in new countries and it took in more than 80,000 new refugees last year.

But America’s idealistic generosity has been in constant tension with the economic fear that scarce resources would go to non-Americans. In 1939, the U.S. rejected a proposal that would resettle 20,000 Jewish children and turned away a ship filled with Jewish migrants, hundreds of whom eventually died in the Holocaust. After migration from southeast Asia grew in the 1960s and 1970s, 60 percent of Americans said they worried about Vietnamese refugees taking their jobs. America’s policy toward the world’s tired and poor has consistently fallen short of Lady Liberty’s promise.

Today, the majority of refugees are young children. They often come from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa, and have often experienced years of trauma. It is quite possible that no refugee children arriving this year will go on to found billion-dollar companies or be named on pharmaceutical patents. In fact, many of them will remain on welfare for years after they are resettled. Even after a decade of living in the U.S., refugee households are more likely to get cash welfare and twice as likely to receive food stamps.

Trump has argued that the amount of money spent on refugees could rebuild America’s urban infrastructure. This is simply wrong. An analysis of Hillary Clinton's plan to resettle 70,000 refugees was projected to cost $1.3 billion. That’s about three hundredths of one percent of the federal budget, or about half of what the U.S. spends today on corn subsidies. The president has also warned that refugees “pouring into our great country … could be ISIS,” but this is no closer to the truth. About 800,000 refugees have resettled in the U.S. since the 9/11 terror attacks. Just three have been arrested in connection with terrorist attacks.

Welcoming refugees might not be an efficient means of growing national wealth. But it is a moral way to spend the national surplus. No country in the history of the world has ever been both so big and so rich—and, despite 9/11, no similar power in history has been so safe from external threats for so long.

But what good is this extraordinary wealth and fortune if it does not free America from the prison of scarcity, in which every single policy decision must be about maximizing national income? With its vast richness, the United States has earned something that is not quantifiable—the capacity to be merciful.