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Dollars Versus Syrian Humanitarianism. Is There A Return On Investment?
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I strongly believe that allowing more refugees to move to the United States - a solution that would certainly work, would carry little in the way of short-term financial costs, and would likely provide a powerful boost to the US economy and drastically increase the living standards of Syrians who are able to relocate.
If we're actually serious about helping Syrian people — both people who've stayed and refugees — it's not enough to identify an intervention that seems like it could make things better and then declare that it's the only viable solution. You have to compare it with alternative plans, and see which produces the most good at the least cost. And it's very, very hard to argue that the kind of intervention that could have plausibly prevented the bloodshed of the past four years would have done more good, at lower cost, than simply issuing green cards to every Syrian who wants one — or even issuing them to just 1 million, or 500,000 — and providing airlifts to bring people here.
The potential benefits to Syrians are enormous. For one thing, we would avoid the huge humanitarian toll associated with existing refugee migration.
The economic benefits are massive, as well. According to economic researcher Michael Clemens, a worker born in Egypt but living in the United States makes 12 times as much as an identical worker still in Egypt. A worker born in Yemen makes more than 15 times as much as his counterpart who stayed behind. Even in Jordan, Syria's substantially richer neighbor, migrants make almost six times as much.
Finally, there's the basic fact that millions of Syrians want to leave Syria. They're willing to risk their lives to make it to a rich Western country. Obviously, giving them what they want would help them.
The key question is, why don't we? What's the cost of letting them in?
Well, flying people in and giving them basic resettlement support would cost money. Not a lot of money, but some. But over time, it would quite possibly pay for itself. It's uncontroversial among economists that immigration generates economic growth, and even the most immigration-skeptical economists concede that some of those gains go to native-born workers, not just migrants.
High-quality studies that use "natural experiments" — cases where there was a big, unexpected spike in immigration — suggest that the absolute effect of immigration on native workers is neutral or positive.
So letting in Syrian refugees looks pretty promising. The benefits to Syrians are enormous. The cost to the US is small at worst.
Basically no one in Washington likes the Assad regime, so it's extremely easy to saber-rattle and makes grand pronouncements about the need to crush it. But plenty of people in Washington love farm subsidies. Plenty of people in Washington like restricting immigration, especially low-skilled immigration from poor countries. Plenty of people in Washington like the idea of cutting the foreign aid budget, or perhaps eliminating it altogeher. Those fights are actually hard. And they actually matter.
And right now, in 2015, the Syria intervention debate is barely relevant. No one could seriously argue that sending US ground troops today has a realistic chance of ending the war and leading to a peaceful, democratic Syria. It's too late. But it's not too late to help refugees. The boats are still sailing, and sinking. Children are still dying. People are still suffering. It's not too late for the US to heed the International Rescue Committee's call for us to resettle 65,000 refugees, not the paltry 1,434 we've resettled so far. It's not too late to do the International Rescue Committee one better and let in 200,000, 500,000, 1 million even. It's not too late to make Syrian refugees' lives dramatically better.
If the loudest Syria hawks on Capitol Hill are serious about helping Syrian civilians, they'd be pushing for President Obama to commit to filling the 33,000 spots reserved for refugees from the Near East and South Asia this fiscal year. They'd be pushing him to increase that cap, or perhaps even lift it entirely. They'd be trying to make life better for Syrians in the most effective manner available. McCain, Graham, and Ayotte have all paid lip service to the plight of refugees, and Graham has suggested he might support legislation to let more enter. But they've spent far more of their time and energy urging intervention, and admonishing the Obama administration when it wasn't forthcoming.
Morality in foreign policy isn't about bombing bad guys. It's about helping people. And usually, the best way to do that won't involve bombings at all.
Ziad K. Abdelnour is a Wall Street Investor & Financier, Pres.& CEO Blackhawk Partners, Chairman of the Financial Policy Council and Author of Economic Warfare: Secrets of Wealth Creation in the Age of Welfare Politics
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