It costs a lot of money to help someone build an entirely new life in the United States, especially if they come from a poor country, lack English-language skills, or face the range of challenges common among people fleeing conflict.
The financial cost of accepting and resettling refugees is shared among:
- the federal government, which has an Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Health and Human Services Department and Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in the State Department
- state and local governments, which run resettlement programs and employ social workers to aid refugees
- private organizations like churches and charities, which often receive government payments to cover some of their costs
One expert estimate found that the U.S. spends about $14,700 on each refugee the first year he or she is accepted.
According to the National Council for State Legislatures, the Office of Refugee Resettlement spent $582 million on resettling refugees in 2014, a year when the U.S. accepted about 70,000 refugees. That works out to about $8,300 per refugee in that year (though some benefits go to refugees already here). Then there’s the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, which spent about $310 million in 2013. It’s hard to break that down per refugee, however, because some of that money goes to helping refugees in other countries who never come here.
That’s already more than $10,000 per refugee, roughly speaking, but it doesn’t cover the whole cost of taking in refugees because they’re offered a lot of help that doesn’t come through refugee-specific programs. For instance, refugees are eligible for Medicaid, cash welfare benefits, food stamps, and other programs.
An estimate from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the U.S. spends about $14,700 on each refugee in the first year he or she is accepted. That number still excludes a number of welfare programs for which refugees are eligible, however. The real number would be higher in the first year, though it would drop in later years.
Whatever we make of those costs, they are much, much higher than other forms of aid to those fleeing conflict zones. In 2015, the U.N. refugee agency said it needed about $4.5 billion to care for 4.3 million registered Syrian refugees — about $1,000 per person.
In other words, the whole Syrian refugee budget for the region — which is covered by wealthy governments from all over the world — would only cover the resettlement of a few hundred thousand Syrian refugees in the United States (or any other wealthy country).