White House pressures State Department over refugee costs, sources say


WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - Two studies President Donald Trump hopes will buttress his case to cut the number of refugees are at the heart of a fight between senior White House adviser Stephen Miller and career U.S. government officials over immigration policy, four current and former officials said.

Trump in March ordered the U.S. State Department and other agencies to tally only the costs of resettling refugees but not the benefits that policy experts said refugees can also bring, including tax revenues, professional skills and job creation.

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A current official said Miller had convened meetings with State Department staffers to discuss the refugee cost reports. When department specialists proposed including refugees' economic contributions in the studies to produce a more balanced assessment, Miller rebuffed the idea, one current and one former U.S. official said.

The White House said Miller did not hold meetings on the specific subject of the cost reports and that Trump's overall fiscal year 2018 budget proposal sought to "make transparent the net budgetary effects of immigration programs and policy."

The current and former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that they believe, however, the administration wants to help make a case to restrict refugee flows by creating a skewed analysis.

"It's a policy outcome in search of a rationale," said a former U.S. official familiar with the debate.

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Iraqi Christian refugees struggle to reach new life in Michigan
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Iraqi Christian refugees struggle to reach new life in Michigan
Iraqi refugee Nizar Kassab poses for a pocture with his family in their temporary home in Beirut, Lebanon February 4, 2017. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi
Nizar al-Qassab, an Iraqi Christian refugee from Mosul, carries his family's luggage ahead of their travel to travel to the United States, Lebanon February 7, 2017. Picture taken February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Members of al-Qassab family, Iraqi Christian refugees from Mosul, prepare their luggage ahead of their travel to the United States at their temporary home in Beirut, Lebanon February 7, 2017. Picture taken February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
The al-Qassab family, Iraqi Christian refugees from Mosul, pose near their luggage ahead of their travel to the United States at their temporary home in Beirut, Lebanon February 7, 2017. Picture taken February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Members of al-Qassab family, Iraqi Christian refugees from Mosul, prepare their luggage ahead of their travel to the United States at their temporary home in Beirut, Lebanon February 7, 2017. Picture taken February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Nizar al-Qassab, an Iraqi Christian refugee from Mosul, sees his daughter off at Beirut international airport ahead of her travel to the United States, Lebanon February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Nizar al-Qassab, an Iraqi Christian refugee from Mosul, pushes his family's luggage at Beirut international airport ahead of their travel to the United States, Lebanon February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Nizar al-Qassab, an Iraqi Christian refugee from Mosul, sees his children off at Beirut international airport ahead of their travel to the United States, Lebanon February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Iraqi refugee Amira Al-Qassab wears her refugee immigration documents around her neck as she and two of her children move their luggage after arriving at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Iraqi refugee Amira Al-Qassab stands outside with two of her children as a relative picks them up at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Iraqi refugee Amira Al-Qassab is reunited with her son Rami after arriving with her other children at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Iraqi refugee Amira Al-Qassab wipes tears from her eye as her daughter cries while thinking of her father who was left behind in Lebanon because he could not get a visa to come with them, as they arrive at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Iraqi refugee Amira Al-Qassab (R) and three of her children are greeted by a relative picking them up from at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Iraqi refugee Rami Al-Qassab gives a bouquet of flowers to his mother, Iraqi refugee Amira, as he is reunited with her and his siblings after they arrived at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Rami Al-Qassab (R) hugs his brother after being reunited with his Iraqi refugee mother Amira (L) and siblings after they arrived at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Iraqi refugee Amira Al-Qassab (2nd L) and four of her children are reunited with her son Rami (L) as they arrive at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Iraqi refugee Amira Al-Qassab (2nd R) and four of her children are reunited with her son Rami as he uses his phone to Facetime the event to a relative as they arrive at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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The White House disputed the notion that Miller was seeking to tailor the outcome of the reports, which are to be compiled mainly by the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM).

"The idea that we are ordering biased reports is false," said Michael Short, a White House spokesman.

The tensions over the reports, due in September, have not been previously reported.

Miller has a history of backing curbs on immigration. He was the architect of Trump's order in January suspending the refugee program for 120 days and refugees from Syria indefinitely. That order, which also temporarily barred travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, was largely blocked by the courts, as was a second executive order.

Miller was not available for an interview. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

DISSENT

Tensions in the government over Trump's immigration policies began with Trump's executive order, which prompted about 900 State Department employees to sign an internal memo dissenting against the executive order in January.

Weeks later, the right-wing Breitbart website, which has close ties to the White House, published a story calling for the firing - among others - of the two top officials in the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement and three senior officials at the PRM bureau.

Breitbart listed the officials by name, but it did not mention the reports on refugee costs. Career officials cannot be fired, but can be reassigned. There is no evidence the five have been reassigned.

Trump promised a hardline immigration policy during his 2016 presidential campaign. He called at one point for a complete ban of Muslims entering the United States, citing security reasons amid a series of attacks worldwide by Islamist militants.

For the first report, Trump ordered a tally of "the estimated long-term costs of the United States Refugee Admissions Program at the Federal, State, and local levels, along with recommendations about how to curtail those costs."

Trump directed that the second report estimate "how many refugees are being supported in countries of first asylum (near their home countries) for the same long-term cost as supporting refugees in the United States, taking into account the full lifetime cost of Federal, State, and local benefits, and the comparable cost of providing similar benefits elsewhere."

Refugee policy experts said that while more refugees can be supported in third-country camps for a given sum than settled in the United States, that support does not provide a permanent solution as resettlement can.

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Refugees fleeing the US across Canadian border
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Refugees fleeing the US across Canadian border
A man from Yemen crosses the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer talks to a man exiting a taxi, who said he was from Yemen, as he walks towards the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man from Yemen looks over at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer as he walks towards the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man from Yemen is taken into custody by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers stand on a hill looking over the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A border marker is seen at the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man from Yemen is taken into custody by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man from Yemen is taken into custody by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A family from Yemen crosses the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A family from Yemen is taken into custody by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A family from Yemen crosses the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man who told police he was from Mauritania is taken into custody by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 13, 2017. Picture taken February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man who told police he was from Mauritania drops on his knees as he arrives at the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 13, 2017. Picture taken February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man who told police that he was from Mauritania is helped up a hill and taken into custody by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 13, 2017. Picture taken February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A woman who told police that she and her family were from Sudan is taken into custody by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after arriving by taxi and walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 12, 2017. Picture taken February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man who told police he was from Mauritania walks across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 13, 2017. Picture taken February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A child is helped up a hill by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers after a family arriving by taxi and claiming to be from Sudan are taken into custody after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 12, 2017. Picture taken February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man who told police that he was from Sudan is taken into custody by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer after arriving by taxi and walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 13, 2017. Picture taken February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
A man walks down Roxham Road in Champlain, New York, with his luggage toward the U.S.-Canada border in Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada February 13, 2017. Picture taken February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
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Most studies show that refugees entering the United States require more government services than immigrants as a whole.

But scholars differ over the long-term economic impact of accepting refugees, which can depress low-skilled workers' wages and require all workers to help pay for social services that refugees receive.

During their first eight years in the United States, refugees receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes, a study published this month by the nonprofit National Bureau for Economic Research said.

"After the eighth year, taxes paid tend to be greater than the benefits received," by an average of $21,000 over a 20-year period, the study found.

Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limiting immigration, agreed that accountings such as those Trump ordered should not be limited to costs.

"It's only fair to consider any fiscal benefits," she said.

The four current and former U.S. officials said the high-level White House focus on the reports has sent a clear signal about the outcome Trump wants.

"When the White House calls and expresses interest...in a report of this nature, given all the things that the national security council and people around the president have to worry about, that sends an enormously profound signal to the bureaucracy," one of the former officials said. (Reporting by Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Grant McCool)

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