Refugees and immigrants are one of the reasons that the U.S. is the only western country to count among the top 10 populous countries in the world. However, the population grew at the slowest rate in the U.S. in 2021 since the country’s founding. Reduced refugee and immigration intake has much to do with it. Even though the Biden administration set the limit to 125,000 refugees a year, the actual intake was fewer than 26,000 refugees.
Refugees contribute a range of skills and diverse experiences to their host countries, but unfortunately, there are many misperceptions and a lack of understanding about the refugee journey. Refugees go through more scrutiny, contribute substantially to the U.S. economy and are more committed than any other immigrants to make America their home. These false assumptions negatively affect refugee intake and integration into American society. We need more refugees, not less.
A common myth is that refugees have had a miserable life and should therefore feel grateful to be here. Undoubtedly, refugees go through a difficult, often tragic, journey fleeing for their lives as they are forced out of their country. Most refugees spend approximately 17 years in a refugee camp before they are accepted by another country and are grateful to have a new home and safe life. However, adjusting to a new country and new culture brings new and different kinds of challenges.
Many refugees have had happy, successful lives in their own countries. Several who once thrived as doctors, engineers, chefs, and similar qualified professions are stuck in minimum wage jobs after arriving in the U.S. Their degrees are either not accessible or recognized in the U.S., leading them to start their life from scratch in every sense of the word. Having to deal with a new environment including culture, food, and work is hard enough for anyone, but without understanding the local language and a proper support structure in place, these challenges can be debilitating. Refugees (and immigrants) are often criticized for living in high-poverty neighborhoods and interacting only with each other, but often these are the only people who understand their plight and can provide cultural and social support.
Another common misbelief is that Western countries host the majority of refugees. This is not surprising, given that much of the news and media coverage focuses on refugees flooding into Europe and the perceived ongoing immigration crisis at the US southern border. It is a lesser-known fact that approximately 83 percent of refugees are hosted by low and middle-income countries and 72 percent live in neighboring countries. Currently, Turkey hosts the highest number of refugees.
There seems to be a lack of awareness and education in the U.S. about the level of scrutiny refugees go through compared to other immigrants. I’ve heard completely false statements like, “Did you know that refugees get a car and a house when they arrive in the U.S.?” The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the international agency responsible for refugees, determines if an individual qualifies as a refugee. Once granted refugee status, they become eligible to be considered for admission into a country that is accepting refugees. Each country determines the total number of refugees that they are willing to accept. They are, however, not allowed to choose refugees from one country over another.
Each US administration sets a number of refugees they will accept. That number has ranged between 60-100,000 refugees a year, except under the Trump Administration when that number was reduced to 18,000 refugees. It is important to remember that this is just a limit. It does not mean that the U.S. actually receives that many refugees in a year. Refugees themselves do not get to choose their destination country, although an effort is made to reunite them with their family members. Once accepted, refugees must go through a rigorous background and medical checkup as well as obtain security clearance. The U.S. security process involves several agencies including the State Department and Homeland Security. The entire process can take upwards of two years.
Host countries have their own processes to help refugees integrate into their new society. In the U.S., the State Department works with nine resettlement agencies, who in turn work with their partners and state and local governments across the country to help resettle refugees. Refugees are received at the airport by these agencies and provided housing and other basic support for a period of 90 days after which they are supposed to become self-sufficient. These agencies not only set up housing, but also provide English language classes, help them find employment, and provide other necessary information needed to survive in a new country. However, unless there is a medical need, such support is only provided for a three-month period, after which refugees have to navigate the system on their own. Comparatively, the US spends less time and money on refugee resettlement than other countries like Canada (where refugees receive a full year of support).
There are definitely those who are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, but most incorrectly assume the extent of benefits and support provided to the refugees and view them as a strain on the social and economic system. Research shows that refugees overall have a positive impact on the U.S. economy.
While they do receive initial financial assistance, they see a sharp income increase in subsequent years, contributing 20.9 billion in taxes in 2015 alone and display more entrepreneurship than any other immigrant group. A recent study found that a 10% reduction in refugee intake relative to 2019 cost the US economy upwards of 1.4 billion dollars.
Refugees have contributed to American society in many other meaningful ways. Did you know that Albert Einstein, Marlene Dietrich, and Gloria Estefan were all refugees? Supporting refugees is the right thing to do, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also because refugees make our economy strong and enrich our society with new ideas and culture.
Op-Ed published at Commondreams.org.