Refugees and the Economy

We're three weeks from Election Day 2016 (it's on November 8th, just in case Trump confused you), and we're talking about major voting issues that involve refugees. We've looked at the fear that welcoming refugees might jeopardize our national security, we've considered the different cultures that refugees come from and the benefits those difference might have for us, and today we're going to discuss refugees and the economy. Does welcoming refugees strengthen or strain our economy? Are they a benefit or a bane to our country's financial health? To answer this important question, let's look at several myths about refugees and the economy.

Refugees Live on Government Aid and Welfare

This myth is true and false at the same time. Let me just begin by saying that financial assistance for refugees is extremely complicated and involves a lot of different moving pieces, so I am going to attempt to give you the big picture. If you would like more details, let me know. Refugees who are resettled in the US are given a set amount of money per person that is meant to cover all their needs for the first three months, including housing, furniture, basic household items, food, and transportation. This amount is around $1,000 per refugee, which is really not much when you consider the cost of rent and other expenses in most US cities. Refugees are also given a travel loan through the International Organization for Migration for the cost of their plane ticket. They will begin repaying the loan just five months after arriving in the US.

[bctt tweet="#DidYouKnow #refugees get a travel loan from @UNmigration to resettle? They have to pay it back. " username="refugee_review"]

All in all, refugees do not receive much "special treatment." They may qualify for public welfare programs like SNAP (what we call food stamps), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and Medicaid, but they are subject to the same income requirements as American citizens applying for these programs. Many of these programs only provide assistance for a limited amount of time. For example, families can only collect TANF assistance for 60 months over the course of their entire lives.

Most refugees are benefiting from government aid programs to some degree, especially in the first few months and years after their arrival. However, this assistance is almost never sufficient to support a family. Most refugees must find a job less than three months after arriving in the US (the only exceptions are children under 18, the elderly, and those with severe injuries or disabilities). Take a moment to imagine how difficult that must be if they don't yet speak English well and are recovering from the trauma of fleeing their home.

Refugees Take Jobs From Americans

A major concern when it comes to discussions about refugees and the economy, is that large numbers of refugees will overwhelm the labor market and take jobs from hard-working Americans. Let's think logically about this for just a moment. First, this is the US, not Germany, so the numbers of refugees we have recently resettled is much smaller. In fiscal year 2016, the US resettled approximately 85,000 refugees. The US has a population of approximately 319 million. That means that the refugees resettled last year make up .00026% of the entire US population. That is a tiny, tiny number.

[bctt tweet="Myth: #Refugees take jobs from Americans. Truth: Refugees do #jobs many Americans don't want to do. " username="refugee_review"]

Most refugees begin their careers in the US at a minimum wage job, many working in factories, as taxi drivers, as janitors, and other low skill positions. Many Americans do not want these kinds of jobs and employers struggle to fill necessary positions. Many resort to hiring undocumented immigrants to fill these gaps. If more refugees, who are in the US legally, were available to fill these positions, there would be fewer openings for undocumented immigrants, which might cause illegal immigration to decrease even further.

Finally, most refugees only retain their refugee status for five years, after which the majority apply for and are given US citizenship. It's a bit strange for me to hear people complaining about refugees taking jobs from Americans when many of those "refugees" are actually US citizens with the full rights afforded every American.

Refugees Don't Contribute Anything to Our Economy

This myth comes about as the result of two things: ignorance, or not looking far enough into the future. As I mentioned above, most refugees rely in part on government welfare programs for the first few years after they arrive in US. Considering that they have lost absolutely everything and have been uprooted from their homes to start life all over again in a different country, this should not surprise us. But the problem is that many people only think about the first few years when refugees may be contributing less than they are taking. If we look ahead beyond those first few years, the refugee story takes an amazing turn.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled their country, many in boats. The US resettled nearly half a million of these "boat people" in the late 70's and 80's. Over 30 years later, Vietnamese Americans are an amazing example of the potential and resilience of refugees resettled in our country. Many Vietnamese refugees started businesses, in fact, along with other Asian-Americans, Vietnamese Americans are more likely to own their own business than any one else in the US. Over the years their entrepreneurial spirit has created jobs for thousands of Americans. Vietnamese Americans also boast some of the lowest unemployment rates and highest average incomes of all Americans. What would happen if we broadened our horizons and saw beyond the first few difficult years that refugees experience to imagine the opportunities refugees might provide for economic growth in the US?

[bctt tweet="#DidYouKnow #unemployment rates are lowest among Vietnamese Americans who came to the US as #refugees? " username="refugee_review"]

These are just a few myths people are believing about refugees and the economy these days. As Election day approaches don't let myths form the foundation of your voting decisions. Educate yourself and share this information with your friends and family as well.

Further Reading on Refugees and the Economy

Refugees have the potential to boost economies in Europe and other countries as well.

The Washington Post encourages us to see refugees as an investment, rather than a burden.

Seeking Refuge, a book about the refugee crisis written from a Christian perspective, also has some great points about refugees and the economy on pages 66-70.