refugees

Huge Net Costs from Trump’s New Executive Order Cutting Refugees

President Trump today issued a revised version of his infamous executive order to temporarily ban the issuance of new green cards and visas for nationals from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. The new order dropped Iraq, which eviscerated Trump’s argument that the list of banned countries is based on an existing list in U.S. law. The order also cuts the number of refugee admissions by about 37 percent compared to the post-1975 average number of annual refugees admitted—from 79,329 per year to just 50,000. However, there were 110,000 refugees scheduled to be admitted in 2017 so the actual decrease in refugees this year is a whopping 55 percent under this executive order. The Trump administration thinks this new order addresses many of the legal challenges made against the first version.

Introduction

When the first version of this order was signed at the end of January, Cato’s research showed that the actual domestic terrorism risk from nationals of those six countries was minor and that the order stands on shaky legal ground. For this iteration of the executive order, I intend to show that the permanent decrease in refugees costs native-born Americans more than we’d save from fewer terrorism deaths. This cost-benefit analysis does not look at the cost of temporarily reducing green cards and other visas.

Results

If Trump’s refugee reduction eliminated all deaths from refugee terrorists then it will cost native-born Americans about $159.4 million per life saved, which is about 10.6 times as great as the $15,000,000 per statistical life estimates if the average number of refugee admissions had stayed at 79,329 going forward (Figure 1). In other words, such a policy would reduce your annual chance of dying a terrorist attack committed by a refugee on U.S. soil from one in 3.64 billion per year to zero at a cost of $159.4 million per life saved. 

However, President Trump’s executive order is not decreasing refugee flows by 37 percent in 2017. The Obama administration slotted 110,000 refugee admissions for 2017, so this year’s reduction is actually 55 percent. If I assume that the new 110,000 annual admission figures would have been the new normal in the absence of Trump’s executive order, the economic costs increase to $326 million per life saved for a 100 percent reduction in your chance of dying in a refugee terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The economic costs incurred are about 21.7 times as great as the cost for a single death by refugee terrorist in this scenario (Figure 1). 

Refugees, Immigration, and the Trolley Problem

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump’s son, Eric Trump, tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles candies along with the caption: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

Trump’s tweet generated backlash from many corners but the general logic of this vivid metaphor continues to resonate for many, despite research that demonstrates that the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack carried out by refugees and immigrants in the United States is astonishingly low. For many Americans, the prospect of just one bad skittle overwhelms a more rational calculation embracing both immigration’s costs and benefits.

But perhaps a different vivid mental picture can help people see the immigration question in a new light.

The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem (quoted here from Wikipedia) is this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the sidetrack. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the sidetrack where it will kill one person.

This is a tough scenario for sure. Do you believe that pulling the lever is the best option? What is your justification for that choice?

Surveys have shown that around 90% would make the difficult decision to pull the lever to save the five people. The justification for most people is straightforward: saving five lives is better than saving one life. But studies also show that it matters a great deal who that one person is. For example, if the person happens to be the respondent’s relative or loved one, a respondent is far less likely to indicate he or she would pull the lever.

Conflicted Public Reaction to Trump’s Immigration Executive Order

Last Friday, President Trump issued an executive order temporarily barring entry of refugees, visitors, and immigrants—including those with green cards—from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. During this delay, the government is tasked with making its screening process more extensive. The order indefinitely bans refugees from Syria.

As Henry Enten notes, we’ll have to wait until we have more polling data to ascertain how the public will judge the action, but polling over the past year gives us some clues.

Slim but Shy Support Most polls throughout 2015-2016 found about 56% of Americans opposed Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States. However, these polls tended to be conducted by live telephone interviewers. In contrast, polls conducted online by reputable firms like YouGov and Morning consult, find a plurality of Americans in support.

Aggregating over 40 telephone and online polls conducted over the past two years finds Americans opposed to the ban 56% to 39% in surveys conducted by phone, but a plurality in support 49% to 39% in surveys conducted online. This suggests that people taking surveys by phone feel uncomfortable sharing their true feelings and thus fib to the live interviewers. But, privately taking a survey online encourages people to share what they really think. In the polling world, this is called “social desirability bias” evoked by social pressure to not appear prejudiced to the live interviewer.

Of course, the difference cannot be entirely attributed to survey mode since the questions weren’t worded the exact same way. Nonetheless, it’s suggestive that there is a “shy immigration restrictionist” effect going on. (Remember the shy Trump voter?)

Americans Don’t Support an Outright Ban on Refugees Existing data suggest Americans do not support a permanent ban on refugees. Most telephone and online surveys found that Americans oppose not taking any refugees at all and a plurality (46%) say the “US should open our borders to refugees of foreign conflicts” according to an Ipsos/Reuters Jan 2017 online survey. At the same time, Americans tend to support taking fewer refugees rather than more, when given the option. For instance, both an Ipsos/Reuters Jan 2017 online survey and a Marist Apr 2016 telephone survey found 53% of Americans want the US to take in fewer refugees.

Wording Impacts Support Strength As you can imagine, survey question wording impacts responses. Support for immigration restriction increases when refugees and immigrants are described as coming from “terror prone regions” or when respondents are told that government needs time to enhance security measures. For instance, Rasmussen, measures the highest degree of support (57%) when it asked if respondents support or oppose a “temporary ban on refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen until the federal government improves its ability to screen out potential terrorists from coming here.” This question presupposes the government screening system is already poor and the new administration could meaningfully improve it. If these are the assumptions going in, support will be higher. When national security concerns are invoked and at the top of people’s minds they are more supportive of immigration restrictions.

Support for immigration restriction decreases, however, when the described policy implies a religious test. Surveys register lower support (48%) if the policy is described as a “temporary ban on all Muslims traveling to the United States” (from Morning Consult).

Little National Security Benefit to Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

Tomorrow, President Trump is expected to sign an executive order enacting a 30-day suspension of all visas for nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.  Six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis, and one Yemini have been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Zero Libyans or Syrians have been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that time period.

Many other foreigners have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses that did not include planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  One list released by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) details 580 terror-related convictions since 9/11. This incomplete list probably influenced which countries are temporarily banned, and likely provided justification for another section of Trump’s executive order, which directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release all information on foreign-born terrorists going forward, and requires additional DHS reports to study foreign-born terrorism.

I exhaustively evaluated Senator Sessions’ list of convictions based on publicly available data and discovered some startling details.

President Trump’s Immigration Plans

Trump’s victory in the Presidential election is a tremendous political upset. The biggest issue raised by Trump was immigration—and he didn’t waver from his restrictionist position. Although the polling data doesn’t show support for Trump’s position and the election was not a blowout, depending on whether he wins the popular vote (unclear at this time) he and other restrictionist Republicans will take this as a mandate to follow through on his immigration promises. 

Trump’s stump speeches were superficial but his immigration position paper was detailed and specific. Simply, it calls for a 20 percent to 60 percent cut in green cards and a huge increase in immigration enforcement. Here are the details from his immigration position paper fleshed out:

Refugees, Immigrants, and the Polarization of American Foreign Policy

If I asked you whether Americans were more likely to name immigrants and refugees a critical threat to the United States in 1998 or in 2016, which year would you guess? Most people, I think, would quickly choose 2016. Most people, however, would be wrong.

According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in 1998 53% of Americans did so, compared to 43% in 2016. The error would be understandable, of course, given the homegrown terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. over the past year, Trump’s tough talk about Muslim immigrants, and the vigorous debate about Syrian refugees. Indeed, at first glance the numbers are puzzling.

When we break down the responses by political affiliation, however, we get our first clue about what is going on. As it turns out, in 1998 Republicans and Democrats were closely aligned in their assessments – 56% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats saw refugees and immigrants as a critical threat, a difference smaller than the margin of error in the survey. But by 2016 67% of Republicans did so compared to just 27% of Democrats.

The Terrorism Risk of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees: The Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey Terrorist Attacks

News stories are now suggesting that the Minnesota stabber Dahir Adan entered the United States as a Somali refugee when he was 2 years old.  Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspected bomber in New York and New Jersey, entered as an Afghan asylum-seeker with his parents when he was 7 years old.  The asylum and refugee systems are the bedrocks of the humanitarian immigration system and they are under intense scrutiny already because of fears over Syrian refugees.    

The vetting procedure for refugees, especially Syrians, is necessarily intense because they are overseas while they are being processed.  The security protocols have been updated and expanded for them.  This security screening should be intense.  The process for vetting asylum-seekers, who show up at American ports of entry and ask for asylum based on numerous criteria, is different.  Regardless, no vetting system will prevent or detect child asylum-seekers or child refugees from growing up and becoming terrorists any more than a child screening program for U.S.-born children will be able to prevent or detect those among us will grow up to be a terrorist. 

Adan and Rahami didn’t manage to murder anyone due to their incompetence, poor planning, potential mental health issues, luck, armed Americans, and the quick responses by law enforcement.  Regardless, some may want to stop all refugees and asylum seekers unless they are 100 percent guaranteed not to be terrorists or to ever become terrorists.  Others are more explicit in their calls for a moratorium on all immigration due to terrorism.  These folks should know that the precautionary principle is an inappropriate standard for virtually every area of public policy, even refugee screening.   

Immigration and Terrorism

Cato published a paper of mine today entitled “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis.”  I began this paper shortly after the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December last year when it became clear that few had attempted a terrorism risk analysis of immigration in general, let alone focusing on individual visa categories.  There were few studies on the immigration status of terrorists and the vast majority of them were qualitative rather than quantitative.  Inspired by the brilliant work of John Mueller and Mark Stewart, I decided to make my own.  

From 1975 through the end of 2015, 154 foreign-born terrorists murdered 3024 people on U.S. soil.  During that same time period, over 1.14 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally.  About 7.4 million foreigners entered the United States for each one who ended up being a terrorist.  Startlingly, 98.6 percent of those 3024 victims were murdered on 9/11 (I did not count the terrorists as victims, obviously).  However, not every terrorist is successful.  Only 40 of those 154 foreign-born terrorists actually ended up killing anyone on U.S. soil.    

Immigrants frequently enter the United States on one visa and adjust their status to another.  Many tourists and other non-immigrants frequently enter legally and then fall out of status and become illegal immigrants.  I focused on the visas foreigners used to enter the United States because applications for that visa are when security screenings are initially performed. 

7 Reasons Why Hitting 2016’s Refugee Goal Would Be a Major Achievement

Responding to the worldwide refugee crisis—which the United Nations has called “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”—President Obama vowed last September that the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees and 85,000 refugees total over the following 12 months. With much fanfare, the State Department hit its Syrian refugee quota this week. But with just one month left, it is still 15,000 short of its overall target, and if it continues at its current pace, it will come up 3,000 short.

But here are seven reasons why hitting the target would be a major accomplishment.

1) A slow start: The biggest reason that the State Department is cutting it close is that it suffered one of its slowest starts in recent years.  In the prior three fiscal years (FYs), the refugee target was 70,000, and yet even with a higher goal this year, the United States had accepted fewer refugees at the midpoint of this year than at the same time in any of those years (the purple bolded line in the chart below). While the United States has usually ramped up slightly during the second half of prior years, it has taken an historic effort to catch up this year.

Figure: Monthly Refugee Admissions to the United States (FY 2013-FY 2016)

 

Source: State Department

2) Most refugees in a month ever: If the United States is to reach its goal this year, it will need to accept nearly 15,000 refugees in September. This is more than any month that the State Department has made available since 2001 and possibly the most ever. Although month-by-month statistics are unavailable for the record year of FY 1992 when the United States admitted 132,000 refugees, the average monthly intake was only 11,000, making it possible that this September will be the most ambitious month in history.

3) Late planning: A major reason for the slow start is that the agencies had planned throughout FY 2015 to accept only 75,000 in FY 2016. It was not until two weeks before the start of the year that Secretary of State John Kerry changed course and decided to increase the number by 10,000. The agencies scrambled to adjust, but it took time to ramp up. “As an operational person and for planning purposes, I had anticipated an increase from 70,000 to 75,000,” Barbara Strack, Refugee Affairs Division Chief of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), told Congress on October 1st last year. In order to meet the goal, the agency needed to “surge” hundreds of refugee officers into Jordan from February to April to conduct enough interviews to meet the goal.

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