Texas could suffer if the U.S. keeps out refugees like me

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library in Manhattan on July 3, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

In 2015, at the age of 29, I flew on a plane for the first time. I’d been accepted into the U.S. as a refugee — specifically in Austin, Texas — after fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. During the flight, I was so excited I could hardly sit down. Upon landing, I was greeted by staff from Caritas of Austin’s refugee resettlement program, and a wave of relief came over me. I was safe from violence. I was home. 

I was one of 70,000 refugees who came to America that year. It’s hard to imagine where I’d be if the U.S. hadn’t welcomed me, or if I’d even be alive. And yet today, our country is welcoming fewer refugees than ever. Nationally, we’ve reached the lowest level in nearly forty years, and Texas saw a 79% decrease in refugee resettlement between 2017 and 2018. Now, President Trump wants to cut that number to zero. The administration has also drafted an executive order that would allow state and local governments to reject refugees who have already been admitted.

These policies would undermine America’s long-standing commitment to human rights. They would also hurt communities that have benefited from refugee resettlement, resulting in fewer tax dollars and less job creation. Refugees in the U.S. paid almost $23.3 billion in taxes in 2017, according to New American Economy. And refugees are more likely to be entrepreneurs; 13% are entrepreneurs, compared to 9% of native-born Americans. That’s why I urge the president to reconsider these cuts and ask our Congress to stand up for refugees — and for Texas. 

I didn’t choose to become a refugee. I had a happy childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But when I was 18, my father, who worked as a farmer, was shot and killed by soldiers. My family ran from the bullets and scattered. Afterward, I couldn’t find them. For the next decade, I searched for them without success. I stayed in Burundi for six years, but soon the violence caused me to flee to Namibia, then finally, America. 

My first years in Austin weren’t easy. I’d never navigated a city bus system or shopped for groceries. I worked three jobs: as a security guard, a housekeeping supplies manager at JW Marriott Hotel, and an Uber driver. In 2017, I was hired full-time as a resettlement support specialist at Refugee Services of Texas. I love my work here, but I worry that with so few refugees arriving, we could lose funding and I could lose my job. Sadly, Caritas was recently forced to end its refugee resettlement program after 44 years. 

I also work as a home healthcare aid on nights and weekends, caring for elderly Texans. Immigrants and refugees are key to this industry, filling positions that most U.S.-born workers don’t want. In fact, available healthcare jobs outnumber healthcare workers in every state, but the two cities with the largest gap (Houston and Dallas) are here in Texas. I worry that my managers, and others like them, won’t be able to find enough workers if fewer refugees come here. 

In 2016, once I was safe in America, something amazing happened: I found my family on Facebook. They were living in Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi. After receiving my green card, I flew to Burundi to see my mom for the first time in 12 years. I cried when I saw her. My family couldn’t believe I was alive. They are proud of me for the life I’ve built in the U.S., and I hope they’re able to join me here one day.

Refugees love America and want to lift up our communities in any way possible. I often volunteer at a local church, driving those without a car to pick up groceries or attend job interviews. I want to pay forward the kindness I’ve received in this country. I hope America’s leaders can recognize this and restore their commitment to saving the lives of others around the world, like they saved mine all those years ago. And when the new arrivals land, I’ll be at the airport waiting for them, ready to show them the path forward.

Innocent Bugingo

Resettlement support specialist, Refugee Services of Texas