The Trump Administration Manipulates Study on Economic Benefits of Refugees in US

What Happened: The Trump administration rejected a cost-benefit analysis on the economic impact of refugees because it clashed with the administration’s political position on the subject.

Why it Matters: Science-based decisions should be based on credible evidence. When science is manipulated or credible scientific studies are suppressed, the subsequent decisions supposedly based on science become politicized. In this case, the political manipulation of science will likely result in an economic loss in the US as well as serve to undercut the policy and humanitarian intentions behind the 1980 Refugee Act.


The Trump administration wanted to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. The problem: its own Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had produced a study that showed refugees actually brought in tens of billions of dollars more in government revenue than they cost. This evidence ran counter to the Trump administration’s rhetoric that refugees and immigrants are an economic burden. The administration’s solution: reject the draft study and produce a three-page final report, which has yet to be released publicly, that discusses only the costs of refugees and none of the benefits.

The administration’s move to suppress the initial copy of the study came in the lead-up to October 1, the date every year on which the president is required to set the number of refugees that will be allowed into the country during the fiscal year, as mandated by the Refugee Act of 1980. During the Obama administration, the refugee cap averaged 67,000, but rose to 110,000 in 2017 to allow for the significant number of Syrians escaping the civil war. Following a contentious internal battle in which Trump administration officials changed, rejected, or suppressed data that ran counter to their political rhetoric, that number has now dropped to 45,000.

In mid-September, the initial draft economic analysis was leaked. The report concluded that “…the net financial impact of refugees was positive over the 10-year period, at $63 billion.” In contrast, the final report submitted by the department, which considered only the costs of refugees, found that “In an average over the 10-year period, per-capita refugee costs for major H.H.S. programs totaled $3,300.” After the circulation of the initial draft, an internal email sent among several government agencies noted that “senior leadership is questioning the assumptions used to produce the report.”

Chief among those undermining the evidence was Stephen Miller, a former Jeff Sessions aide who now works as a senior policy advisor to President Trump. Two White House officials related that Miller had told people at the agency that “The President believes refugees cost more, and the results of this study shouldn’t embarrass the President.” One of the officials also commented on the efforts by Miller’s team at the Domestic Policy Council (DPC) to cherry-pick other data on refugees, noting that “We’d get [papers written by the National Security Council] back from D.P.C., and they were eighty-five-per-cent different. D.P.C. would just sit down and write their own paper. They put in a lot of spurious statistics.”

According to the profile, Miller maneuvered around the State Department, Defense Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Vice-President, and Office of Management and Budget to push through his draconian cuts to the refugee cap, dismissing and rewriting the evidence as needed. As one State Department official told the magazine, “We’d gone from a hundred and ten thousand to around forty thousand, with no evidence to support the decision. It was purely political. The process has never been this corrupt.”

Manipulating scientific evidence to fit a political narrative is a clear path toward implementing policies that are detrimental both to the US and to our allies. In the case of the refugee cap, political interests didn’t simply ignore the data—they rewrote it. The economic health of the country and the physical safety of those fleeing violence was caught in this twist of supposed evidence-based policymaking.

Last Revised Date: 

January 11, 2018