Lifting a cap on refugees would give the US economy a much-needed boost

The US president Joe Biden.
The US president Joe Biden.
Image: Reuters/Erin Scott
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After backlash from progressives and human rights groups, US president Joe Biden confirmed this weekend that he would raise the annual cap on refugees permitted into the US, reversing course on plans to temporarily stick with a limit set by former US president Donald Trump, the lowest in the program’s 41-year history.

The reversal reflects Biden’s continuing struggle with immigration policy, as his administration focuses on a surge of unaccompanied minors at the southern border, and rebuilds the department responsible for processing official refugee resettlement.

Following an influx of refugees into the US following World War II and the Vietnam War, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which standardized resettlement processes and capped the number of refugees allowed into the country.

Data from the Washington DC-based think tank Migration Policy Institute shows that cap has been successively lowered almost every year since, from a high of more than 200,000 refugees in 1980, to 15,000 last year.

Research shows that refugees are important contributors to the US economy. A 2017 working paper from National Bureau of Economic Research, which looked at a sample of 18-to-45-year-olds who resettled in the US over a 20-year period, found that the US spends roughly $15,000 in relocation costs and $92,000 in social programs over a refugee’s first 20 years in the country. But refugees pay nearly $130,000 in taxes, or nearly over $20,000 more than they receive in benefits.

After six years in the US, while average wages are never as high as the average for US-born residents, refugees were more likely to be employed than US-born residents around the same age, the researchers found.

The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security also found that refugees could contribute about $3.2 billion to the US GDP. With the administration focusing on the country’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, refugees could play an important role in the US economy when it most needs it.

Meanwhile, “the promised increase in resettlement places could serve as an important signal and recommitment given record humanitarian displacement globally,” the Migration Policy Institute has written.

Biden said that he wanted to raise refugee admissions to 62,500 this year, and up to 125,000 during the first full budget year of his administration. But late Friday afternoon, Biden had signed an order limiting admissions to 15,000.

Following intense backlash, the administration quickly backtracked and said would it increase the cap and that provide the final number by May 15. But White House press secretary Jenn Psaki also added that Biden’s “initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.”

Thousands of refugees already vetted by the administration have reportedly been in limbo with flights canceled as resettlement organizations wait for the final number to be confirmed.

The total refugee population in the US is at least 3 million. So far this year, there’s been a record low number of refugees settling in the US—2,050—putting Biden on track so far to accept the fewest number of refugees of any modern president, reported the Washington Post.