Why we need to welcome refugees

Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Throughout its history, the United States has struggled with its core identity as a nation of immigrants.

In the past year, we have seen this fact of American life play out across the nation: We have witnessed the xenophobic haranguing of refugees from the Middle East and Africa by some political candidates and elected officials. And we have seen everyday Americans flood U.S. airports and state capitols to vociferously protest attempted travel bans and other policies harmful to refugees.

These divergent relationships with refugees have been on high-profile display even as we experience the largest waves of displaced people the world has seen in modern times — due in large measure to the tragic civil conflict in Syria.

Yet as the U.S. and other world nations pause to commemorate World Refugee Day on June 20, one simple fact continues to be overlooked: We in America need to welcome refugees.

Yes, refugees bring a welcome and healthy diversity of food, culture and community to our towns and cities; and yes, by their very being, refugees affirm our identities as Americans. Historically speaking, the vast majority of us and our ancestors came to the U.S. fleeing something — poverty, famine, genocide, political repression.

But the primary reason we need to welcome refugees is simply this: Refugees renew our country, our economy and our virtues.

The fear-mongers among us would have us believe refugees are depriving native-born Americans of jobs that are rightfully theirs; or that refugees come looking for welfare benefits and subsidies from taxpayers but contribute nothing; or even worse — the most shameful falsehood — that refugees are dangerous.

The economic impact of refugees in the workforce and their brainpower is indisputable, and few states have benefited more from refugee arrivals than the state of Texas, despite the unfounded and callous rhetoric of some elected state officials.

Texas’ ability to absorb refugees and immigrants into the workforce could give our state a different economic future than even other industrialized nations like Japan and Russia, which do not have a culture of effective immigrant integration. The truth is that refugees arriving to the U.S. bring youth, skills, talent, and most of all, a desire to succeed — the virtue this country was built on.

As fewer Americans are interested in taking on challenging, entry-level jobs, foreign-born residents have become the most willing group to fill those same positions. Refugees in particular, who often come to the U.S. with professional degrees in a specific field, are typically unable to practice in their field of expertise until they have completed a lengthy certification process that may take years. Consequently, they must take on jobs that do not necessarily align with their skillset and that pay far less than the jobs for which they would otherwise be qualified.

And while refugees may initially depend on public benefits immediately after their arrival (as anyone would in their shoes), most refugees quickly become self-sufficient. At our agency, about 85 percent of refugee clients become self-sufficient within 180 days of their arrival.

A study just concluded by researchers at the University of Notre Dame proved that the long-term economic benefit of admitting refugees outweighs the initial costs. The average cost of resettling a refugee in the U.S. (background checks, housing, English lessons and job training) between 1990 and 2014 was approximately $15,000, according to the study. But within eight years of their arrival, adult refugees have already contributed more than that amount to the U.S. economy through their tax contributions. Moreover, by the time refugees have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, they will have paid an average of $21,000 more in taxes than in benefits they ever received from all levels of the U.S. government. Refugees are also nearly twice as likely to start a business than native-born Americans.

To those who fear refugees, know that they go through the most rigorous vetting and background checks of anyone in the history of the U.S. before their arrival — a process that typically takes two years and involves the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and several other national intelligence agencies. Social media accounts are checked, along with fingerprints, DNA samples and iris scans. There is nothing to fear but the fear-mongers themselves, who are seeking to score political influence or increase divisions in our country via a short-sighted, compassionless, xenophobic philosophy.

Refugees have helped forge our economic past in this nation, and they are our economic future. 

This future is especially bright for children of refugees. Many will graduate near or at the top of their class, motivated to seize the opportunity that their parents and this great country have afforded them. That opportunity is a chance to live and work in peace, and to give back to their family, their community and the United States of America. 

On this World Refugee Day, let’s celebrate our heritage as a nation of immigrants — not fight it.

Aaron Rippenkroeger

President and CEO, Refugee Services of Texas