I am a registered Democrat, and I support a welcoming policy toward refugees. But I am also an economist, and I am concerned about the sustainability of Portland’s open-ended, reactive and unmanaged refugee assistance program.

The recent growth in refugee applicants is consistent with what we know about the migration process – that successfully settled migrants report their experience to friends and relatives, which adds to future migration. As the Press Herald reported June 13, “Many of the migrants ask to be sent to Portland, Maine, after learning about the support the city provides and because of the immigrant community that has taken root here.”

The number of refugee applicants arriving in Portland is not an exogenous variable. It results from the city’s uniquely generous refugee assistance policies and public statements about its refugee assistance program, including Mayor Ethan Strimling’s well-publicized challenge: “If (President Trump) wants to send more immigrants our way, bring them on.”

This open-ended approach is appealingly soft-hearted, but unfortunately, it is also soft-headed. Being liberal does not require blindness to economic realities. It is not responsible for the city to set policy on refugee assistance without investigating where that policy is leading in terms of taxes and pressures on various city programs, and without consulting voters about the tax burden that it entails.

Instead, the city should undertake an honest projection of the costs of refugee assistance, including the longer-term effects on education costs, and consult with voters about the level of taxation that they are willing to bear in continuing to welcome refugees. Once it has decided on this goal and the policy changes that it requires, the city would need to monitor implementation of the policy and update the process over time to ensure that it remains consistent with the agreed goals and constraints.

Michael Mertaugh


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