Posted by Guest on February 22, 2017 in Blog

By Raneem Alkhatib

“Everyone tells you that they have seen death with their own eyes, but God gave them a second chance, a second life,” Farhad Agajan says. Agajan works as an interpreter for refugees crossing into Greece. A second chance at life is what all refugees and immigrants crave. They look to Europe and the United States as a safe haven where they can prosper and give back to their new society. Sadly, Many Americans complain that refugees would be a strain on the American economy. The reality is much different with immigrants and refugees providing a net benefit. In fact, in some American cities, people are hoping for refugees to be resettled in their area. They hope these new residents will help restore their cities.

Immigrants, especially from Syria, are often highly skilled. The median annual wage for U.S. born workers is $45,000. For Syrian Americans its $52,000 – a testament to their potential economic impact. Immigrants are also job creators. In fact, 11 percent of Syrian immigrants are business owners, compared to just three percent of native born Americans. Syrian refugees, who often bear the brunt of anti-refugee sentiment, could lean on the established Syrian American community to help them integrate and flourish like so many before them. If this pattern plays out as it has before, the local communities would reap the benefits.

Just look at Turkey, which has accepted more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Turkey spent less than 0.2 percent of their GDP to host the refugees and in return, Syrian refugee entrepreneurs have been boosting Turkish businesses. While Turkey’s bureaucratic economy is not as open to new entrepreneurs as the United States’ many Syrian business owners are managing to thrive. They do this despite the unorganized nature of the resettlement process there.  

In comparison, refugees resettled in the United States are sent to designated locations where they have some system of support awaiting them. In countries bordering Syria like Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian refugees wait on the border to enter. They are let in by the hundreds, sometimes thousands, and while refugee programs exist, there isn’t a defined resettlement network. Refugees also don’t have the same rights as citizens and face many problems trying to work and study. In the United States, the limited numbers of refugees accepted are guaranteed certain rights and protections, which boots their chances for success.

Despite the many benefits, there remains a vocal minority who cannot see the promise and potential refugees offer us. When asked about the overwhelming proof that immigrants boost the economy, Senator Tom Cotton, from Arkansas, quoted George Orwell, “Only an intellectual could believe something so stupid.” Economists, however, have revealed the benefits of immigrants after countless studies, and one pair of colleagues showed the direct effect on jobs immigrants have. “John McLaren of UVA and Gihoon Hong of Indiana, coauthors of the study, found that when looking specifically at non-tradable sectors, each new immigrant produced about 1.2 new jobs, most of which went to native-born employees. Put more simply—if 1,000 new immigrants were to move in, the local economy would end up gaining about 1,200 new jobs.” This research was focused on the “non-tradable industry,” which includes jobs in retail, construction, and manufacturing. Putting into account other jobs and immigrant owned business, this number could rise even higher.

In Willmar, Minnesota more than 20 businesses on Main Street are owned by Somali immigrants. This is not just the case in Minnesota, main streets across America are being saved by immigrants. Main streets are the businesses that shape a community and neighborhoods within a city. Immigrants only make up 13 percent of the national population, but are 28 percent of main street owners. Immigrants help cities grow and we can see how they helped in Philadelphia and Nashville. In both cases, immigrants helped revive main street by opening stores and restaurants.

In Philadelphia, many main street businesses faced closure before the arrival of new immigrants ten years ago. Now, the city has more than 13,000 immigrant owned businesses ranging from barber shops to bakeries. Nashville’s immigrant population has jumped from two percent to 12 percent since 1990. In Nashville today, three in 10 main street businesses are owned by immigrants. These immigrants help provide jobs and boost the city’s economy. This is also true in Michigan, which is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans. These immigrants and refugees positively impacted Michigan’s economy and even helped save Michigan after the decline of Detroit and the auto industry.

For this reason, people in Rutland, Vermont want refugees to be settled in their city. The mayor of Rutland sees Syrian refugees as an economic opportunity, a way to save their shrinking city.

Rutland is not the only place asking for more refugees, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania resettled one refugee for every 327 residents between 2013-2015. This is 20 times more than the national average, and the residents want to welcome even more refugees and immigrants. Many of Lancaster’s refugees are from Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, and Syria - all of which are included on President Trump’s travel ban. When a few dozen people, from a neighboring county, came to Lancaster to protest refugees, the people of Lancaster held a pro-refugee rally where hundreds turned out. Adding to Lancaster’s welcoming nature, it also has an availability of blue collar jobs. Low skilled refugees can fill these jobs, freeing up more skilled workers who are ready for promotion. This is the case in Turkey, where many Syrians fill positions that Turks would not, such as on farms and in the villages. Without the Syrians, those jobs would have remained open with no one to take them. These blue-collar jobs, or manual and industrial jobs, are a perfect fit for low skilled immigrants and refugees.

Cities like Rutland, and countless others around the country, will only benefit from more immigrants making them worth the welcome, despite any resettlement costs.  

Raneem Alkhatib is a Spring 2017 Intern at the Arab American Institute.