A Humanitarian Stimulus
It's time to dispose of the politics of fear and embrace a pro-refugee, pro-economy policy.
Hardly a month in, 2016 is turning into what could be called America’s “Year of Living Fearfully.” Across the country, physical and mental doors alike are being locked against the threat of terrorists, a fear magnified by the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Terrorists, the mantra goes, may well infiltrate any refugees arriving in the United States from countries in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq.
The fearful mantra is being egged on by the Republican presidential candidates’ ceaseless, xenophobic haranguing of refugees and immigrants from Syria, Mexico, and elsewhere. The sentiments they have voiced, if ever enacted as policy, may end up shooting us in the foot, as they deny us the opportunity to renew our country and its economy. Fundamentally, the mantra denies the truth that the majority of us are interlopers, and most of us (or our forefathers) came here fleeing something: poverty, repression, genocide, pogrom, famine, or political repression.
America already hosts a huge population of noncitizens — some 22 million, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2013. That amounts to some 7 percent of the total population. Today, globally, we are looking at one of the biggest waves of refugees the world has ever seen, with something like 20 million people on the road from their homes or hovering in neighboring countries, paying usurious sums to get somewhere safe and start to build a different future.
What an opportunity. Our history and culture make it clear that there is a compelling economic logic to welcoming significantly more refugees and immigrants. Just as they have been our economic past, they are our economic future. The ability of the U.S. economy to absorb immigrants gives us a different economic future than other industrialized nations, like Germany — currently being swamped by refugees (1.1 million and counting) — Japan, or Russia, which do not have an immigrant culture, but do have aging populations. Expanding this population in the United States will bring youth, skills, talent, and, above all, a desire to succeed, something this country was built on.
But the narrative of fear currently gripping Americans prevents them from seeing the myriad advantages of inviting immigrants. On the one hand, many seem to fear that refugees will deprive them of jobs that are rightfully theirs. It’s an age-old fear that each new generation of refugees and immigrants seems to generate, once their immigrant cohort has been integrated and accepted as truly American. At the same time, and sometimes out of the same mouth, you will hear from some community leaders and pundits that refugees come as leeches and sponges who receive free welfare benefits and subsidies from American taxpayers but contribute nothing. This contradictory message reinforces the mantra of fear: take our jobs; get a free ride. It reinforces the sense that America is under assault from free-riders and low-wage workers, whipping up support for measures that will expel unauthorized immigrants and shore up our borders.
The economics of this argument are unsophisticated and wrong. Refugees and immigrants can actually be a boon for the economy, as Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, has said, with respect to Europe, and as the Fiscal Policy Institute pointed out for the United States, especially its urban areas. In reality, as former Maine Attorney General Jim Tierney and economist Charles Cogan have pointed out, immigrants do not take jobs away — they actually take the jobs that are going unfilled, especially in areas with a declining labor force. They create jobs by building small businesses that require a workforce.
Immigrants and refugees from the Middle East have actually historically done better, economically, than many native-born citizens. According to the 2013 Pew study, the share of the nearly 1.5 million Middle East-origin immigrants in the United States today with college and advanced degrees is higher than the share of native-born citizens with such degrees. Nearly 50 percent of those aged 18 and older speak English “very well” — the highest proportion among immigrants from all regions. Compared with immigrants from other regions of the world, a much higher share of those from the Middle East work in the fields of management and business, education, the arts, media, and sales. The share of Middle Eastern immigrants in these fields was also higher than the share in the same fields of native-born Americans.
The new Middle East refugees appear to fit this pattern. In a recent Intelligence Squared debate on refugees, David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, noted that eight out of 10 Syrian refugees to the United States are employed within six months of admission. And the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2013 that Iraqi refugees rapidly increased their rate of economic self-sufficiency from their initial arrival in the United States.
The mantra of fear and resistance to refugees is pronounced in my home state of Maine. And yet the importance of refugees and immigrants for the state’s economic future is patently clear. Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, joined 30 other governors (all but one a Republican) in calling for a halt in Syrian refugee admissions. They should review Tierney’s work. He argues strongly that Maine’s economic and workforce challenges can only be addressed through an influx of refugees and immigrants. This point is likely to be strongly reinforced by a forthcoming report from Coastal Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit group that has done a detailed study on the issue. Many communities, like Lewiston, Maine, have, for decades, faced aging and shrinking populations, declining tax bases, uneven public services, and low levels of entrepreneurial investment, resulting in a vicious downward economic spiral. Other communities, like Portland, Maine, welcome immigrants who provide a diverse working population that has clearly contributed to the city’s revival and growth. Refugees and immigrants have been and can continue to be a clear source of economic salvation — ready to work, learn, and take the jobs that have too few applicants.
What stands in the way of reaping these economic advantages, advantages that are being realized in other states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota? The answer is the mantra of fear — fear of cultural differences and welfare sponges. Cultural differences, skin color, religious differences, the “leech” message — these all have a long history.
The spice added to the new resistance is terrorism. The fear of terrorists, disguised as refugees, has created an almost insuperable obstacle to reasonable, realistic policy. In reality, while no screening process can guarantee 100 percent success, it is clear that the U.S. refugee screening process in effect today is one of the toughest in the world. As U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch put it last November: “We do have the benefit of having that significant and robust screening process in place, a process that Europe has not been able to set up, which renders them more vulnerable.” And the realities of this tough process, which delays entry into the United States for 18 to 24 months, will not overcome the fear.
Moreover, the data show that the wave of Syrian immigrants is not predominantly young men of what is called “fighting age.” And the vast majority of the Syrian refugees that have been referred to the United States by the U.N. refugee organization are women and children under 17.
A new wave of refugee immigrants could be a boon to America, far outweighing any risks of terrorism. We do not need to halt the flow. We need to increase it because of the long-term payoff it will have for renewing the American economy. We need to go well above the initial 10,000 Syrians the Obama administration has proposed accepting. In fact, we ought to set a goal of admitting 100,000 properly screened Syrian refugees over the next two years (one-tenth the number Europe has taken in). This is a critical moment for us to renew the promise for refugees and immigrants who will only strengthen the nation.
Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Contributor