Today is World Refugee Day, a day to commemorate the strength, perseverance, and courage of displaced people around the world. Over 65 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced from their homes, the highest number since World War II. Turkey alone has accepted nearly 3 million refugees from Syria.
In our current political climate, some consider refugees a security threat and a drain on national resources. But America benefits economically, socially, and morally by accepting more refugees.
A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that after six years in the United States, refugees work at higher rates than citizens. A similar 2016 study by the Tent Foundation found that refugees fill gaps in the labor market, work harder to learn skills and languages than economic migrants, and have a “dynamic” impact on growth.
The myth that refugees drain a nation’s economic resources is false. Yes, refugees initially require a substantial resettlement cost (approximately $15,000), and often initially need welfare services. However, after eight years in the United States, refugees receive welfare at the same rate as U.S. citizens with similar education and language skills. Over a 20-year period, refugees in the U.S. pay an average of $21,000 more in taxes than the initial cost of resettling them. In fact, a study by Texas A&M professor Kalena Cortes shows that over time, refugees tend to out-earn other immigrants and add more value to the economy than the initial cost of resettling them. For example, Vietnamese-Americans, many of whom arrived as refugees, tend to be more financially stable and more employed than the average American, and therefore less likely to need welfare benefits.
Refugees play a key role in creating new jobs and raising overall wages. This is in part because they are more likely than other groups to open small businesses, creating new jobs rather than taking old ones. For example, refugees were a major factor in stabilizing the economy of Utica, NY, because they filled important gaps in the labor force and created greater economic demand for goods.Even when refugees do low-skilled work, they do not displace American workers. A study by scientists at the University of California, Davis and the University of Copenhagen found that an influx of low-wage immigrant labor tends to raise wages for everyone.
Refugees also contribute tremendously to innovation and growth. Examples of famous refugees or children of refugees who have advanced U.S. culture and knowledge include Marc Chagall, Gloria Estefan, Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, Enrico Fermi, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein.
That history is in jeopardy. President Trump issued an executive order in March slashing refugee admissions from 110,000 to 50,000 this year and temporarily suspends all refugee admissions. That order, which federal courts have temporarily blocked, insults our history and our legacy. We have a precedent of being welcoming and gracious. That precedent is not just rooted in altruism; accepting refugees is good for America. It’s time to step up and embrace our history of welcoming people fleeing persecution around the world. As a country, we have an economic and moral imperative to be what we once promised we would be: a refuge for the world’s huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.
Stephen Yale-Loehr is Professor of Immigration Law Practice at Cornell Law School, where he co-directs an asylum clinic. Aaron El Sabrout is a law student at Cornell Law School.