Over the past several decades, small cities throughout upstate New York and mid-America have counted on refugees to fill jobs left open as more Americans flock to the coasts and bigger cities. Now, with the refugee cap at a historic low, economic development in these cities is stalling.
Take Akron, Ohio. Like many Midwestern cities, Akron was hit hard when jobs in the auto and manufacturing industries started disappearing in the early 2000s. Many of its workers left for bigger cities and other opportunities.
But between 2007 and 2013, Akron's foreign-born population increased by 30% (more than 2,000 people). In 2013, Akron's immigrant population held roughly $137 million in disposable income and paid about $17 million in state and local taxes; more than a third of them owned homes.
The increase in the immigrant population was largely due to Akron's reception of families arriving through the U.S. refugee resettlement program. But now, after a federal cutback in refugee admissions — and the lowest refugee ceiling a president has ever placed on refugee admissions — this growth has plateaued. In 2018, the Akron area received fewer than 200 refugees, down from more than 900 in 2016.
Cities in upstate New York face similar situations. The state's comptroller's office reports that, during the period between 1950 and 2000 , not only did Rochester and Syracuse lose roughly 30% of their populations, but Utica lost 40% and Buffalo lost essentially half. In recent years, refugee admissions had begun offsetting population decline.
But again, this rejuvenation has stalled . Statewide, New York received 1,362 refugees last year, compared with 5,830 in 2016. In 2018, only 169 refugees were resettled in Utica — less than 40% of the number of refugees resettled in 2016. In Rochester, the decline has been even more stark: from nearly 900 refugees who arrived in 2016 to just 133 last year.
Refugees also brought a strong work ethic and resilience to these cities. In 2013 and 2015, half of the top 10 students at one high school in Utica were refugees, a local newspaper reported .
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Many Americans — motivated not only by economic considerations but also by convictions of their faith — are wholeheartedly welcoming refugees into their communities. Cities across New York and Maine are creating incentives for refugees to move there, including job-placement and English-language and housing services.
These incentives contradict a widespread myth that refugees are a drain on the U.S. economy. In reality, the economic benefits of taking in refugees are well documented; like other immigrants, refugees actually contribute more in tax revenue than they receive in government benefits.
A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found immigration "has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S." And economists at the University of Notre Dame found that 20 years after arrival, an adult refugee has contributed an average of $21,000 more in taxes than the total cost of governmental expenditures on their behalf.
Most economists agree that instead of taking jobs from Americans, refugees and other immigrants boost the economy by filling jobs that would otherwise remain vacant. A study from the bipartisan research organization New American Economy found immigrants were more than 15% more likely to work unusual hours than U.S.-born workers. And refugees are twice as likely as U.S.-born workers to hold jobs in services such as dry cleaning, housekeeping and machine repair.
Refugees are also 50 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than citizens who were born in the United States. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by refugees, immigrants or their children, and more than half of the United States' "unicorn" startups — companies valued at more than $1 billion — have immigrant founders, with several founders coming to the United States as refugees. More than 80 percent have an immigrant employee in high-ranking positions such as chief executive or chief technology officer. Immigrants do not "take" American jobs: They create them.
Not only has the administration drastically lowered the refugee ceiling, but it is admitting far fewer than the ceiling allows. In fiscal 2018, the White House capped refugee admissions at 45,000 but ended up resettling fewer than 23,000 people. The 2019 cap is even lower, at 30,000. As of March, the Trump administration had admitted only 12,151, and recent reports have emerged that the administration is considering zeroing out the program in 2020.
We can't forget the loss we experience when we allow fewer refugees into our country. We need a 2020 refugee ceiling of at least 75,000, for the sake of our economy. But, more than that, these numbers reflect our commitment to the faith-based values of compassion and inclusion that have shaped this country. Providing refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution has been a defining part of our history. If we no longer stand for these values, then what kind of future will we have?