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Why do some U.S. mayors want more refugees?

Studies find that refugees pay back more than they’re given and that they revitalize abandoned neighborhoods

- June 27, 2021

Last month, the Biden administration lifted the U.S. cap on refugees from the historically low 15,000 to 62,500 people. In the announcement, President Biden explained that this low cap “did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees.” And yet a person familiar with the developments told The Washington Post that part of the problem was that the Office of Refugee Resettlement was overwhelmed by handling the children streaming in at the southern U.S. border.

Meanwhile, some mayors want more refugees, seeing them as crucial to their growth and prosperity. Research confirms that refugees contribute significantly to the communities where they settle. So should refugees be a higher priority?

Refugees are not a southern border problem

Many Americans conflate refugees with asylum seekers. Refugees are people who belong to a group that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or a national government recognizes as fleeing war and persecution as established by the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. While the United States has a long history accepting refugees, the formal federal program, the U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) was established as part of the Refugee Act of 1980. Refugees go through an initial screening process by the UNHCR and are then referred to the U.S. State Department. The selected individuals go through several security screenings by agencies that are part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They come from all over the world, including Africa, Asia and Europe.

Asylum seekers are different. They show up at the border, claiming that they, too, are entitled to protection from violence and persecution in their home country. Their claims, however, must be reviewed by a court to determine whether they meet the government’s standards. Furthermore, asylum seekers may be detained while awaiting trial.

The migrant ‘surge’ at the U.S. southern border is actually a predictable pattern.

Why do U.S. mayors want more refugees?

So why have some U.S. mayors been asking for more refugees? Cities provide significant public assistance to integrate refugees into the local economy and culture. They do so despite stretched city budgets, particularly in the Rust Belt where depopulation has meant less tax revenue. And yet even when the Obama administration raised the cap on refugees to its peak of 100,000, 18 mayors requested still more refugees. Additionally, when the Trump administration slashed the number refugees allowed to enter to 18,000 in 2020, 88 mayors — coming from both parties — sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the return to previous annual levels of refugee admissions.

The answer: Refugees’ economic contributions far outweigh the initial costs of resettlement, as numerous studies have found. One such study, commissioned by the city of Cleveland, found that while in 2012, the city spent about $4.8 million on support for refugee resettlement, the refugees who’d settled there in the previous 12 years had contributed $48 million to the city’s economy. A similar study in Detroit found that refugees who had settled there between 2007 and 2016 contributed from $229.6 million to $295.3 million to the local economy, creating between 1,798 and 2,311 new jobs in 2016. In 2004, economist Kalena E. Cortes found that refugees “work four percent more hours, earn 20 percent more in income, and develop their English language skills 11 percent faster than economic immigrants.”

Refugees earn higher incomes than other immigrants, which means that their tax contributions are higher, too. One study found that over 20 years, a refugee pays more in taxes than the cost of all the aid and public services they received. Refugees’ household spending on goods and services results in additional jobs and higher business revenue. Moreover, refugee communities have a high rate of entrepreneurialism. A 2017 report found that the percentage of refugees who operate their own businesses is greater than that of other immigrants or native-born citizens.

Want to know more? Check out TMC’s Immigration Topic Guide, offering scores of readable research-based analysis of immigration.

Reviving the heartland

Refugees also make unquantifiable contributions in areas that have been losing population for decades. In areas like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Detroit, abandoned homes and businesses have attracted squatters, gangs and other criminal activities. Those abandoned buildings drain public budgets. In 2007, Buffalo’s mayoral office estimated “each abandoned house costs the city an average of $20,060 over five years in lost taxes, debris removal, inspections and policing.

Refugees build communities in these areas that revitalize entire neighborhoods and drive out gangs and other kinds of crime. A Niskanen Center report quoted the director of a Buffalo refugee resettlement agency as saying that refugees “were pretty much the only group that was moving into the west side of Buffalo and taking over those vacant houses and vacant businesses.” That increases property values and expands the tax base.

Because refugees also bring the promise of population growth, cities compete to attract them. For example, Buffalo boasts four refugee resettlement agencies and has been actively working with refugees since 1918. Two of these agencies began offering services in the 1980s as a response to the official U.S. refugee program. Buffalo’s city officials hoped to see a population increase from the 2020 census — which would be the first in decades — because 12,196 people from other countries moved to Erie County, N.Y., between 2010 and 2014, more than half of them refugees. The Trump administration’s near-freeze on refugee resettlement may have undermined this goal.

Why Biden’s plan to slow migration through international aid is unlikely to succeed

More jobs and a better economy

Even at the U.S. peak of taking in 100,000 refugees, they made up a small proportion of the 1 million immigrants that the United States admits each year. But this small group can transform and revitalize cities drained by decades of declining populations. No wonder mayors want more of them.

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Anita R. Kellogg (@arkellogg) will be joining John Hopkins SAIS’s Foreign Policy Institute as a postdoctoral fellow this fall.