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Refugees don't drain America's economy. They revitalize it

Refugees don't drain America's economy. They revitalize it
A family attempts an illegal border crossing in Champlain, N.Y. after they heard that Canada was accepting asylum seekers from Haiti. (Los Angeles Times)

Over the past year, the number of refugees who resettled to the United States fell from about 97,000 to fewer than 34,000. The primary victims of this reduction are displaced people escaping violence and oppression, many of whom have been living in refugee camps for years.

But there is another casualty: the U.S. economy.

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A key reason why refugees tend to flourish is the grit and determination they forged in the face of extreme adversity and persecution.


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I am far from the first to say this. Numerous studies have established the economic benefits of taking in refugees. Last year, 80s CEOs and business leaders warned President Trump in a letter that "overly restrictive immigration policies will likely cause billions of dollars in economic loss to our education and tourist industries and weakened foreign investment."

Since many people continue to argue that refugees are a drain on our economy, however, it's worth revisiting the wealth of research and data showing that, in fact, quite the opposite is true.

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A 2017 draft report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that, over the past decade, refugees have contributed $63 billion more in tax revenue than they cost in public benefits. On a per capita basis, refugees contributed more than U.S.-born citizens during this period. The longer refugees stay in the U.S., the more enhanced are the benefits they bring to the economy.

A key reason why refugees tend to flourish — despite being among the most vulnerable and destitute when they arrive — is the grit and determination they forged in the face of extreme adversity and persecution.

According to the New American Economy Research Fund, refugees are 50% more likely to become entrepreneurs than American citizens who were born in the U.S. Another study found that refugees in Columbus, Ohio, supported more than 21,000 jobs and contributed more than $1.6 billion to the local economy.

What's more, refugees often pass along their drive and propensity for hard work to their children. The New American Economy Research Fund found that 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by refugees, immigrants or their children. In 2013 and 2015, more than half of the top 10 students at one high school in Utica, N.Y., were refugees, a local newspaper reported. The school's 2015 valedictorian, a refugee from Vietnam, said of her parents: "They put all their hopes and trusts and everything in me. So education becomes a responsibility for me."

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Refugees can also help lessen the strain on America's workforce and entitlement programs as baby boomers retire.

In 2015, less than half of the U.S.-born population was of working age, or between 25 and 64. By 2050, the number of U.S.-born citizens over 65 is expected to double. By contrast, more than 75% of refugees currently living in the U.S. are of working age. Over the past decade, the tax contributions of these refugees exceeded their receipt of public benefits by $194 million, or almost $9,200 per person.

Many of these refugees hold jobs that are the hardest to fill. More than 1 in 5 refugees work in manufacturing, and refugees are twice as likely as U.S.-born workers to hold jobs in general services, such as dry cleaning, housekeeping and machine repair.

With such a robust body of research establishing the economic benefits of taking in refugees, it's curious that people still believe they are a drain on the economy. It's possible that a refugee does occasionally get a job that a native-born American might otherwise have occupied. But this grievance fails to account for the number of jobs that refugees create.

More likely the myth persists because many Americans have never met a refugee — have never witnessed their flight to safety or their long path to integration. A decade ago, I had no first-hand knowledge of refugees either. But as CEO of World Relief, I have observed up close the violence they are fleeing and grasped the impossibility of returning to their home countries.

Americans are a compassionate people, many of them motivated by the convictions of their faith. We want to help. At the same time, many of us wonder, given the number of our citizens facing economic troubles, if we as a country can afford to continue welcoming refugees fleeing persecution abroad.

But the evidence is clear: refugees are an economic boon for any country that accepts them. We can't afford not to welcome refugees.

Tim Breene is the CEO of World Relief. He previously was founder and chief executive of Accenture Interactive.

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