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Opinion: The cost of being ethical: US refugee resettlement

By Audrey Mooney
A mother desperately trying to flee her war-torn village. A baby crying in the streets surrounded by rubble and destruction caused by enemy fire. A young boy being forced to pick up an automatic rifle in order to defend his family. Chaos and bloodshed everywhere. Their lives rest on the decisions of bureaucrats oceans and miles away. Will those Congressmen and Senators allow refugees into their country and if so, what limits will they impose? 

Cut to images of failing infrastructure within the United States—faulty bridges and cracking roads and interstates. Imagine the families, many of them US citizens, living in extreme poverty right outside major metropolitan cities. Consider the swelling debt and lopsided US budget. Now think of those same bureaucrats mentioned above who were voted into office by their constituents; by some of the very people described previously living off government welfare and subsidies. Will the same Congressmen and Senators chose to prioritize the well-being of their home state and nation over the ethical dilemmas occurring on the other side of the world? 

What is the “right” thing to do? Is there such a thing? I believe there is a balance to be found in this dichotomy. A single country will never be able to fiscally and logistically house every refugee in the world, no matter how ethical the calls may be. It is simply not sustainable nor realistic. In light of that, the US is left to search for the balance between managing ethical responsibilities abroad and domestic agendas.

During the height of the Trump administration, the President set the refugee limit at a record shattering low—15,000. To counter this, newly elected President Biden declared his administration would raise the refugee ceiling to account for 125,000 refugees a year (“Trump Administration Sets Record Low Limit for New U.S. Refugees”). According to the Center for Immigration Studies, an “estimate of the average refugee’s lifetime fiscal cost, expressed as a net present value, is $60,000, with those entering as adults (ages 25 to 64) costing $133,000 each” (McHugh). 

After some quick math, on average, the US would spend approximately $1.62 billion a year on refugees and their resettlement under the Biden administration. This in comparison to what the US spent per year under the Trump administration, which would be approximately $199 million. The totals here are stark and are worth pondering in what other places within our own borders could/should the US be using the budget President Biden plans to set aside for refugees?

Those in favor of increased refugee resettlement within the US cite a study done by the Trump administration in 2018 that found “resettled refugees’ tax contributions outweighed the costs of providing them with government services.” The Urban Institute goes on to state “refugees participate in the labor force at high rates, their earnings rise, and their use of public benefits declines. Those who arrive when they’re young often graduate from college. Set on a fast track to obtain green cards and citizenship compared with other immigrants, most become US citizens, and many own homes and businesses” (Bernstein).

Here is where my argument comes to a pinnacle. If Congressmen and Senators shift their paradigm on refugee resettlement within the US, the right path forward is clear—an upfront expenditure on refugees now is likely to yield a future return on the investment. The refugees we allow into the country now and provide language skills, housing, and start-up funds have proven to reinvest in the US economy and even become US citizens. At that point, the argument comes full circle. The refugees become the very constituents those lawmakers must answer to when seeking re-election. There is a price to be ethical. That price must be paid regardless. The best way forward is to continue to invest in the future of the US even when that means we must take the brunt of up front costs in hopes our ethicals dilemmas and choices prove to be fruitful in the long run. 

Mooney is a Tuscola native and TCHS alumni currently located in Virginia. She can be contacted at 

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