Opinion | Who Are Refugees?

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HIAS Pennsylvania Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson, right, welcomes a refugee client at one of HIAS PA's 'Refugee Thanksgiving' events.
HIAS Pennsylvania Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson, right, welcomes a refugee client at one of HIAS PA’s Refugee Thanksgiving events. (Photo by Susan Kessler)

By Cathryn Miller-Wilson

On Jan. 15, 2020, a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte blocked enforcement of the president’s September 2019 executive order “Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement.” While most states and several localities across the country opted into welcoming refugees before the injunction was issued, the media coverage and some protests that followed made it clear that neither the journalists covering these matters nor the voting public has any idea who refugees are or what refugee resettlement is. 

Refugees are persons who have been provided the legal authority to immigrate. By definition, refugees are persons who have fled persecution and are authorized to live in the U.S. Concerns about “illegals” have nothing to do with refugees.

Refugee resettlement is a program, created by Congress in 1980, to provide for the orderly integration of refugees into American society. The program includes federal — not state or local — funding for 90 days that will ensure that refugee receives cultural orientation, financial literacy, English language classes and a small stipend in order to begin their lives in the United States. It was, for close to 40 years, a bipartisan program. It has nothing to do with sanctuary cities or sanctuary policies or sanctuary anything. It has everything to do with participating in ameliorating the problem of worldwide displacement while also providing economic and human resources to the U.S. 

The goal of all refugee resettlement programs is to assist their newly arrived clients in becoming self-sufficient. Eighty-eight percent of all resettled refugees meet this goal by day 90 and are therefore not only not receiving government resources, but are in fact paying local and state taxes and buying local and state goods with their earned wages by day 91 in the country.

As for the remaining 12% who continue to need resources, the federal government continues to bear those costs through funding for post-resettlement programs that provide ongoing case management and employment assistance for up to a year after that first 90 days. The cost of refugee resettlement to states and localities is not only $0, but actually brings federal dollars, as well as human resources, to states and localities. The executive order is both unlawful and an attempt to dupe unwitting states and localities into losing money and human resources.

Texas is a perfect illustration of this. Texas was the only state that refused to welcome refugees just before the preliminary injunction was issued. In doing so the Texas governor stated that they had borne more than their fair share of refugees “because of our broken immigration system.” In 2016, refugees’ taxes combined with their spending amounted to $6.2 billion in revenue; a recent study shows that if Texas blocks refugee resettlement, it will cost the state $17.1 million. State and local governments have nothing to lose and everything to gain from welcoming refugees.

This is true in rural areas as well. While many rural areas have been suffering economically since at least the 2008 recession, those with large populations of refugees and immigrants thrive. In Lancaster, for example, a 2016 study shows that in 2014, refugees and immigrants contributed $1.3 billion to Lancaster County’s GDP, along with $62.8 million to Social Security, $16.4 million to Medicare, $52.5 million in state and local taxes, and $103.3 million in federal tax contributions. Between 2000 and 2014, the total housing value in Lancaster County increased by $178.2 million due to immigration and refugee resettlement. Despite being just 5.3% of Lancaster County’s 2014 labor force, immigrants and refugees helped create or preserve 1,062 local manufacturing jobs within the county, and the over 1,000 self-employed immigrants in Lancaster County brought in $37.7 million in business income in 2014.

Despite these undisputed facts, available for anyone who can use an internet search engine, protests have erupted in Chester and Delaware counties featuring cries about “illegals,” “terrorists” and “drains on our resources.” Refugees are legally authorized to be here. Refugees are the most highly vetted immigrants in the world going through an eight-step screening process that involves national and international criminal databases and often takes between four and 20years. And refugees bring money to localities rather than costing them. 

Refugees — whose 18,000-person national cap for 2020 would only fill 26% of the seats at Lincoln Financial Field — boost the economy of the towns and areas they move to and of our nation as a whole. To suggest otherwise is misleading, misguided and a mistake.

Cathryn Miller-Wilson is the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.

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