Are Refugees a Valuable U.S “Commodity”?

Author: Camila Rios (Left Leaning)

A refugee is a person who has fled their homeland and can’t return because they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. In the last two decades, due to civil wars and other conflicts, Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan and South Sudan are among the countries that have produced the highest number of refugees. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that one person becomes displaced every 3 seconds, 20 people every minute, and 30,000 people displaced each day. The number of people displaced in 2019 (79.5B) can be compared to the population size of the two biggest U.S states California (39.5M) and Texas (29M) (U.S. Census Bureau). 

Nevertheless, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, surprisingly little research has been done on how well refugees do economically and socially in the U.S. after they are resettled. In the nearly 40-year history of the U.S Refugee Admissions Program, the lowest refugee admissions ceiling was set at 30,000 in 2019. The previous year the number of admitted refugees was even lower: 22,500. According to American Progress, the refugee admissions ceiling was set at an average of 76,000 slots from 1999 through 2016.

The research that does exist suggests that, over time, refugees resettled to the United States integrate well into their host community in terms of socioeconomic indicators such as labor force participation, wages, business ownership, and education, not to mention English language acquisition.

X. The Economic Impact Of Taking In Displaced Persons 

According to Chmura economic studies, Cleveland resettled 598 refugees in 2012 and 4,518 in the years prior since 2000. During this time, Cleveland was facing a population loss and welcomed refugees from Bhutan, Ukraine, Burma, and Somalia. Chmura claims that the Refugee Services Collaborative of Cleveland subsequently invested a total of $4.8 million in refugees in 2012. By the end of 2012, refugees had granted $48 million and 650 jobs for Cleveland. This report describes refugees as “at or above average compared to national norms in socioeconomic integration,” meaning that refugees are American Dreamers willing to assimilate to society by earning their way into their host country. 

The report also found that within five months of a refugee’s arrival in Cleveland, they found employment, despite many of them lacking mastery of the English language. Through their entrepreneurial work and motivation, they naturally contributed to the U.S. economy, forming a revenue cycle and diversification of the job market.

X. What does U.S investment in refugee assistance look like outside its borders?

In 2017 President Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly thanking countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan for admitting refugees into their countries and addressing the reason why the United States supports refugees through policies and money, 

“Their eventual return [Syrian refugees] to their home countries to be part of the rebuilding process. For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region, out of the goodness of our hearts, we offer financial assistance to hosting countries in the region, and we support recent agreements of the G-20 nations that will seek to host refugees as close to their home countries as possible. This is the safe, responsible and humanitarian approach” (PolitiFact).

According to the 2016 U.S. State Department refugee financial report, the distribution of refugee assistance was reported as follows: 82.7% overseas assistance ($2.8 billion), 15.8% of refugee admissions ($545 million), 1.2% of administrative expenses ($41 million), and 0.3% of humanitarian migrants to Israel ($10 million). In 2016, around 85,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. by a cost of admissions of $545 million in total, which averaged $6,409 per admitted refugee. On the other hand, in 2016, there were 22.3 million refugees worldwide with overseas assistance of $2.8 billion, which averaged $126 per overseas refugee. Under this reasoning, the $6,409 assistance for one admitted refugee could, in comparison, support up to 50 overseas refugees worldwide.

The importance of assisting refugees outside the United States appears to be more economically efficient from a quantitative point of view. But is the money the U.S. invests outside its borders more effective than the money within the borders? -Well, refugee admissions ($545 million) are more effective because there is an expected return in future tax revenues for the U.S. In contrast, the $2.8 billion spent on refugees worldwide is a one-way investment.

The expected return in future tax revenues for the U.S. is an argument based on the admitted refugee age of 35, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the current retirement age in the U.S. (65). This represents a productive life span of 25 years for the average refugee admitted in the U.S. 

X. The Social Benefit

Intercultural communication and cultural neuroscience studies reveal that social benefits are part of refugee resettlement. According to Kimberley McAllister, professor at the UC Davis Mind Institute, the human brain’s encounter with stimuli creates new synaptic pathways resulting in new dendrites for neurons to communicate. Humans have “100 billion neurons” in their brains. These neurons generate 100 trillion interconnections and counting through the growth of dendrites that lead to “variations in the ways we think, learn, and behave.” 

The emerging field of cultural neuroscience investigates behavioral differences between people’s brains and discovers where cultural differences are distinctly located. For example, Nalini Ambady, a psychology professor at Stanford University, concluded that arithmetic problem solving activated two brain areas–Broca and Wernicke–uniquely involved in language development. The research found that English speakers used the brain areas of language.

In contrast, the Chinese used the premotor cortex areas that focus primarily on movement and imaging. This potentially implies that both English and Chinese speakers know that two plus two is four. However, although they may encounter the same stimuli, their brains work differently to solve the mathematical problem.

Through refugees’ resettlement, different cultures’ encounters could be the “new era of greater understanding” to new patterns of behavior, perception, and cognition. Take, for example, a brain injury that results in probable permanent damage to certain areas of the brain. As mentioned above, the brain’s ability to remake, grow, and change plasticity compensates for the damaged regions and relocates immediately. Researchers in this field believe that the more cultural neuroscience develops, the more “our understanding of how environment and beliefs can shape cognitive function will deepen.”          

X. Social Benefits of Accepting Displaced Persons 

Richard Parsons, an independent social researcher specializing in business’s social and community dimensions, offers two perspectives on refugee resettlement. The first perspective focuses on the preservation of a nationalist view of state resources that “is based on an ambivalence toward foreign cultures, [possibly referring] to threats to national and cultural identity, and community security, posed by some unknown group of people”, this is the underlying argument that advocates use to present refugees as an economic burden and threat to society. 

On the other hand, Parsons compares the nationalist “position” to the second perspective, based on the values of compassion and care and the legal obligation posed by international treaties, implying that rich countries should regard human beings as more than an economic burden. A third-party perspective could say that refugees’ resettlement is not necessarily based on the contributions they make or do not make. But based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”, without having to worry about contributing to life in a host country.

X.The Government’s Response  

In September 2019, President Trump signed an executive order that required the federal government to obtain permission from state and local governments before settling refugees in their jurisdictions. Therefore, local government influence significantly influences refugee resettlement outcomes. Sympathetic local officials can “facilitate the social and economic transition for resettled refugees by easing access to social services and economic assistance.” While less receptive local officials may impose hostile regulations and go as far as to “incite resident resentment” (PNAS).

By providing refugees with opportunities to work, access to healthcare, and education, the host country can ensure a return on investment. The faster refugees can integrate into the U.S. labor force, the faster they can become productive community members. As a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and ratifier of the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States has a duty to uphold and preserve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under articles 3 and 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratifying and signatory states have an obligation to recognize that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” and everyone is “entitled to life, freedom, and security.”

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