Conventional wisdom holds that resettling refugees and asylum seekers is a burden on the host country. Indeed, many of our nation's immigration policies are based on this premise: We make it difficult for asylum seekers to enter the country; once they are here, their cases often take many years to resolve and in a majority of cases, they are denied; politicians routinely malign asylum seekers as economic parasites, criminals, and terrorists. But why should this be? What is the evidence that refugees and asylum seekers have a negative impact on their host countries?

A new academic paper by Jennifer M. Chacón, Recounting: An Optimistic Account of Migration, challenges the idea that refugees burden their host countries.

The basic idea is nothing new--I have written about it here numerous times. Refugees tend to contribute more in taxes than they use in services. Immigrants and refugees make up a disproportionate number of our nation's health care workers. Also, we gain intangible but important benefits by demonstrating that we support people who have supported us and our values. While these are arguments made by advocates, Professor Chacón is speaking to a more specific audience--academics. She argues for a re-evaluation of assumptions that have been implicit in many law review articles about asylum seekers and refugees. The hope is to encourage a more rigorous analysis when thinking about refugees and immigrants, and to avoid unsupported stereotypes that have prejudiced the debate about migration in academia. As I see it, Professor Chacón's article is important, since law professors are thought leaders, and pushing for more accuracy in the academy might ultimately influence real-world policy.

The heart of what Professor Chacón calls the "optimistic account of refugee resettlement" is the idea that we should take seriously the benefits of migration. In other words, our country gains a lot by accepting refugees for resettlement.

In terms of the economy, the data suggests that "when refugees are allowed to integrate into a receiving state, the host state and the refugee can both benefit economically." The picture here is somewhat nuanced, and as the Professor notes, "While there is local variation, and while it is clear that the benefits do not incur in the short term, the overall picture of the economic effects of refugee resettlement is positive." Interestingly, "integration appears to be a critical prerequisite for reaping these economic benefits," and this fact militates in favor of permanent--as opposed to temporary--solutions for refugees. This is not surprising and I often observe it with my own clients, who are much more willing to invest in their lives here if they know they can stay.

To properly evaluate the economic impact of refugees, we have to look at the costs as well as the benefits, and Professor Chacón highlights certain costs that are often overlooked. These include the substantial cost of trying to keep refugees out--not just at the border, but also in the entire refugee management scheme, which seeks to prevent migrants from getting anywhere near the destination countries. It also includes the cost of interior enforcement and deportation, which splits families and often imposes significant financial and emotional costs.

Another cost--this one more intangible and difficult to quantify--is the cost of resisting change. As the Professor notes--

migration and refugee integration... makes some people uncomfortable. It represents change. It puts pressures on existing institutions and orthodoxies because it introduces new institutions and new orthodoxies. It requires a certain degree of flexibility on the part of both the incoming migrant and the host political community. Many political communities do not want to be flexible. Some of this reluctance is normal human resistance to change. Some of this is racism and xenophobia rearing their ugly heads.

Viewing "resistance to change" as a cost makes sense to me, as we lose opportunities as a country when we fail to adapt to changing circumstances. In my own lifetime, we have seen dramatic increases in the mobility of people and capital, and global interconnectedness. While I do not view all of these changes as positive, it seems obvious that countries that adapt to changing circumstances will do better than countries that only try to resist these changes.

For those of us who work with asylum seekers, we know about the contributions they make to our country--economically and culturally, contributing to science, technology, and art, building bridges to other countries, enhancing national security, and generally making the United States a better and more interesting place to live. While the overall picture is very positive, there are some negatives, including the cost of integrating new arrivals, depressing wages for some workers, and the cost of screening for fraud and criminal issues. But it's pretty clear that the negatives are outweighed by the positives.

For me, the significance of Professor Chacón's article is that it calls for more rigor in the academic debate about whether refugees and migrants are "good" for our country. Given my own experiences and observations, I feel confident that an honest evaluation will show that migration is a very strong net positive for our country. That conclusion should be reflected more accurately in the academic debate over immigration. In any case, I am glad to start the new year by thinking about the benefits that refugees and migrants bring to our country. Happy 2023!

Originally posted on the Asylumist: