A humanitarian stimulus
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 non-citizens — 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.
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.
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