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There's Nothing Compassionate About an Eight-Fold Surge in Refugee Admissions

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Consumer prices aren't the only things soaring under the Biden administration.

The annual cap on refugee admissions is also set to skyrocket from 15,000 -- the fiscal 2021 limit imposed last fall by the Trump administration -- to 125,000, the goal set by President Biden for the current fiscal year that started in October.


This eight-fold increase isn't compassionate -- not to the working-class Americans forced to compete with these desperate new arrivals for jobs and housing, and not to the tens of millions of refugees around the world who'd benefit from a more effective U.S. aid strategy. America could help far more refugees by supporting relief operations close to their home countries, rather than resettling a tiny fraction here.

President Biden has spoken eloquently of America's "commitment to protect the most vulnerable." But it's tough to see how importing a surge of refugees helps down-on-their-luck Americans.

Corporations love it when the government raises the annual refugee cap, because they know these workers -- who are disproportionately lesser-skilled -- will accept low wages without complaint. About 23% of male refugees (and 27% of female ones) lack even a high school degree, a share that's far higher than the 12% of U.S.-born men (and 10% of women) who failed to graduate high school. Refugees earn $8,000 less per year, on average, than their native-born counterparts.

And that earnings gap generally persists for decades -- or even for life. Among those polled in surveys lasting from 2009 to 2011, the median refugee household that arrived within the past five years brought home just 42% as much as the median U.S.-born household. Incomes did increase over time. But even after 10 to 20 years in the United States, they still earned only 87% as much as their American-born counterparts, according to a 2015 Migration Policy Institute study.

Understandably desperate, these refugees are willing to accept virtually any job offers, no matter the pay or working conditions. That's music to corporate America's ears, since management can hire laborers at rock-bottom wages. The most reliable studies of the Mariel Boatlift -- the mass influx of about 125,000 mostly poorly educated Cubans to South Florida in 1980 -- suggest that it depressed the wages of lesser-skilled Americans by 10% to 30%.


American workers can hardly afford such competition, especially since real wage growth has been negative for much of President Biden's tenure due to high inflation.

The Biden administration probably won't bring in the full 125,000 refugees it promised for 2022. Pandemic-related travel restrictions and bureaucratic delays will reduce the number of arrivals, just as it did in fiscal 2021, when the Biden administration brought in 11,411 refugees -- the lowest number since 1980, and just 76% of the 15,000 cap.

Mainly, however, the quota will not be met because other humanitarian immigration programs have been overwhelmed. The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for these programs, had a budget of $760 million in 2012. Its 2022 budget is nearly six times larger at $4.2 billion -- but still just a fraction of the costs of these programs, as this budget does not include ongoing costs of welfare. Most humanitarian immigrant programs under ORR make all welfare programs available upon arrival. And refugees who have been in the U.S. for 5 years show staggering welfare usage rates.

Special immigration categories for unaccompanied children, Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders, Cuban/Haitian Entrants, asylees and other humanitarian categories will easily top 200,000 in 2022. The number of unaccompanied children alone accounted for 107,686 humanitarian admissions in fiscal 2021 and is on track to dramatically increase in 2022. The refugee program is only one of many special humanitarian categories and it's worth remembering that the president campaigned on making the refugee quota a minimum that legally must be filled instead of what it is now -- a ceiling that may or may not be met. The federal contractors, whose lobbyists once included the Podesta Group, are pushing for a refugee quota of at least 200,000 and dramatic budget increases for ORR and for themselves.


This influx -- on top of the arrival of 1 million legal immigrants and a staggering 2 million illegal ones, if current border crossing trends continue -- will drive up living costs for working-class Americans. Developers are only adding about 1.6 million new housing units annually, according to the latest Census data -- not enough to keep up with population growth from births and foreign arrivals.

It doesn't take a PhD in economics to understand that when demand for housing outstrips supply, rents and home prices rise. The national median rent has surged almost 18% since January.

The push for a massive expansion of refugee resettlement is particularly galling, because America's leaders could help tens of millions of vulnerable people abroad -- without disadvantaging their own citizens.

There are about 82 million displaced people worldwide. Focusing our efforts and limited resources on resettling 125,000 lucky ones here does little to help the other 99.85%.

Resettling refugees from the Middle East, for instance, costs U.S. taxpayers almost $12,900 annually over their first five years here, according to one 2015 study. At the time, it cost barely over $1,000 annually to support a Syrian refugee who had sought shelter in neighboring countries.

In other words, we could help about 12 times as many people by devoting our limited resources to regional relief efforts, rather than resettlement. But of course, that wouldn't line the pockets of the money-grubbing federal contractors that have turned U.S. refugee resettlement into a lucrative endeavor -- a far cry from the self-supporting, responsible, self-sacrificing charities that handled resettlement during previous generations.


The Biden administration has cast its eight-fold increase of the refugee resettlement cap as a compassionate move. But in reality, it's callous. It worsens the economic burdens facing working-class Americans, while distracting from relief programs that'd help far more refugees.

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