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Busting Myths about Forced Migrants: Refugees and Public Benefits

“Busting Myths about Forced Migrants” is a new blog series authored by student volunteers from IRAP’s law school chapters. Each month, a different IRAP chapter dispels a common misconception related to refugee issues. We hope this series will provide readers with talking points for the dinner table when you hear a myth being perpetuated. Thank you to WCL IRAP for contributing the third installment in this series.

Refugees Are NOT a Drain on the Economy 

One pervasive anti-refugee myth is that refugees are a drain on the economy and that they exploit the public benefits system. However, it has been proven time and time again that this is simply not grounded in facts. While refugees qualify for some public benefits when they first arrive and may initially use public benefits at higher rates relative to the U.S. population, their use of public benefits typically declines the longer they reside in the United States. Moreover, studies have shown that refugees’ labor force participation and employment rates exceed those of the United States population as a whole. 

Contrary to anti-refugee rhetoric, there is no evidence that refugees file frivolous applications for  state or federally provided public assistance programs. In actuality, it is incredibly challenging for refugees to enroll in state and federally funded public assistance programs. Refugees only have access to very limited means of public assistance, subject to strict restrictions and qualifying procedures under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). Under the PRWORA, refugees may only access federal public benefits for the first five years of their entry or grant of status, after which they become ineligible. Eligibility for federal assistance programs is strictly based on the recipient’s immigration status, employment status, and income, in addition to other state-specific laws and regulations. Refugees also face multiple obstacles in accessing public benefits, particularly when completing their applications for assistance because of confusing eligibility requirements, fear of negative immigration consequences, and language and literacy challenges. The current COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the obstacles of accessing public benefits, as many resettlement agencies have reached capacity and there are long waiting lists for non-citizens, including refugees, to get assistance. 

Although refugees have limited access to public benefits during their first few years in the United States, the benefits help refugees become more economically independent and, in the long run, allow them to contribute even more to the economy. Even though non-citizens make up 15% of the United States population and contribute to 25% of small business growth, refugees and asylum seekers in the United States are often treated as scapegoats for politicians to achieve certain political goals. For example, the Trump administration perpetuated the long-standing animus against refugees, falsely claiming they exploit governmental benefits and take American jobs. Consequently, multiple Republican governors, including those from Texas and Georgia, vetoed the resettlement of refugees to their respective states following Trump’s Executive Order 13888. While the governors cited concerns that refugees would drain their public assistance programs, studies have found that in Texas alone, refugees have $4.6 billion in spending power, and paid $1.6 billion in taxes. On the national level, refugees have contributed an estimated $269.1 billion in revenue to all levels of government from 2005-2014, and had a positive net fiscal impact over this same ten year period of $63 billion. These studies confirm that rather than drain the U.S. economy, refugees significantly contribute to its growth. Unfortunately, anti-refugee discourse and policies have led many refugees to refrain from utilizing the public benefits to which they are entitled for fear of negative immigration consequences for themselves and their families. When refugees forgo these vital programs, it can lead to negative economic and public health outcomes for refugees and non-refugees alike. 

 Moreover, it has been well documented in international studies that resettlement programs are not linked to any sort of economic slowdown in a resettlement country. In European countries that received 89 percent of Europe’s asylum seekers between 1985 and 2015, a study published by Science Advanced found that the perceived “refugee drain” on the public benefits system was outweighed by increased tax revenues. The incoming stream of asylees contributed to a significant increase in per capita GDP, reduced unemployment, and improved balance of public finances. For example, Germany benefited economically from refugees admitted from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Sweden, where public assistance for refugees is robust, the “burden” on public spending was significantly reduced when programs were expanded to provide refugees the resources they needed to quickly begin contributing to the labor market. Further, rather than “steal” jobs from citizens, higher participation of refugees in the labor market complements and strengthens the economy of their host countries and creates more jobs for all residents. 

Refugees greatly contribute to the economies of their resettlement countries despite being significantly deterred from utilizing the scarce public benefits offered to them. Congress has enacted stringent legislation that prevents abuse of federal assistance programs, but these stringent eligibility requirements have been criticized for unduly limiting refugees’ access to federal assistance and hindering their opportunities to successfully resettle in the United States. Allowing refugees an opportunity to access public benefits provides them a better chance to become economically independent and integrate more fully into their resettlement communities, increasing economic growth in the long-term. If the United States embraced the potential for growth stemming from refugee and asylum populations by providing greater access to public assistance, the economic benefits could be enormous. 

Nevertheless, refugee resettlement is a necessary humanitarian program that provides some of the most vulnerable people in the world a safe place to live; any economic benefits deriving from refugees’ labor force participation is an added benefit and should not be the sole reason for their admittance. After the drastic reduction of refugee admittance during the Trump Administration, President Biden needs to rebuild the infrastructure necessary to resettle refugees, including the provision of adequate and sustained access to public benefits. Furthermore, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed people of color, immigrants, refugees, and people with low incomes, it is imperative that federal policies reflect refugees’ need for assistance to avoid creating more permanent harms. Providing the most marginalized groups, including refugees, with the support and benefits they need, will benefit our communities and economy at large.

Khatia Mikadze is a third-year law student at the American University Washington College of Law and serves as a Co-Director of the IRAP chapter at WCL. After graduation, Khatia will be working with Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR) as a public interest fellow providing direct representation to detained individuals in immigration detention centers in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.

Ariel Rawls is a 2L at the American University Washington College of Law and serves as the Policy Coordinator for the IRAP chapter at WCL. She hopes to practice international human rights law in the future.

James Gallagher is a 2L at the American University Washington College of Law and serves as a member of the Policy Team for the IRAP chapter at WCL. He is originally from New Jersey and hopes to practice disability rights law in the future.

Brandon Samples is a 1L at the American University Washington College of Law. He is originally from South Carolina and hopes to work in immigration policy or international development after graduating law school.