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Refugees are an economic force

Las Vegas Sun
Thursday February 15, 2018
By Ioanna Papas

It was 1999 when Kalondji Nunda’s father and brother were hunted down and stabbed to death. At the time, Nunda lived in Congo with his wife and five children. When Rwandans settled in his tribe’s village, he advocated for peace. But peace was not what his tribe wanted. Nunda became a marked man.

His family ran for their lives from 1999 to 2001, seeking refuge and planning their next course of action. In 2001, they entered a refugee camp in Africa. Like many, they stayed in the camp until they could clear immigration in Canada, Australia or the United States.

Twelve years later, Nunda’s family received life-changing news: the U.S. would welcome them.

Nunda is not from one of the 11 countries recently deemed high-risk by the U.S. government — Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. But what he does have in common with refugees from these countries is his determination to live. While each story differs, many refugees have escaped persecution and are searching for a better life in America.

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Of course, recent rhetoric suggests that refugees, especially those coming from “high-risk” areas, pose a threat to Americans and that we should fear them. Those opinions are largely based on misinformation, although opponents of a more welcoming society have used this rhetoric to limit the flow of refugees into the United States.

Organizations working to change that rhetoric, such as Dallas-based Gateway of Grace, provide opportunities to engage Americans and share the reality that refugees are trying to escape persecution. Founder and Executive Director Samira Page believes media portrayal of refugees as political subjects misguides Americans in understanding who they are and how they contribute to the United States.

The portrayal must be having some effect. According to the State Department, from Inauguration Day to Dec. 31, the Trump administration accepted 29,022 refugees. That is the lowest number since at least 2002. The decline will only continue, since the White House has issued a cap of 45,000 refugees a year.

This trend will affect the American economy. Refugees commonly work in the service industry, occupying positions that many Americans shy away from. They also possess drive and determination to succeed. Most come to the United States having left everything they have behind. Without securing a job to generate income, they will starve — failure is not an option.

A study by Global Detroit found that in 2016 alone, refugees who resettled in Southeast Michigan over the past decade generated between $229.6 million and $295.3 million in new spending, along with 1,798 to 2,311 jobs. In total, refugees boosted the economy in Southeast Michigan between $164.3 million to $211.3 million. It is likely that many Americans don’t realize the positive effect refugees have on the economy.

Still, refugees face many challenges. Like Nunda, many must learn English, how to drive, and how to adjust culturally. And the cities they settle in face similar challenges.

For example, language barriers can prevent adults from understanding how to register their children in schools. Once those children are registered, schools must adjust their teaching methods based on language and cultural barriers.

Organizations like International Rescue Committee work with the State Department to help refugees assimilate. When Nunda landed in Dallas, a stranger with IRC brought him to his new home and taught him how to open a bank account and apply for jobs.

Nunda has now lived in Dallas for five years, has a steady job at a restaurant, speaks English and has a mortgage for his new home.

There is no one way to help refugees assimilate. But in Southeast Michigan and Dallas, where the refugee population is higher than the national average, refugees are largely assimilating successfully and living productive lives in large part due to the community. These victories deserve national attention.

Facts, not fear, should help pass any overhaul of our immigration policy. Refugees don’t play a small part in making America great, they play a significant role in elevating this country. Without them, the U.S. would not be seen as a leader. The economy would not be the powerhouse it is. And the respect this nation has garnered as a safe haven for those who seek refuge would be diminished.

The U.S. once had compassion for people like Nunda who escaped persecution to save their families. Isn’t it time to bring that compassion back?

Ioanna Papas is editorial manager for the George W. Bush Presidential Center. A longer version of this essay is in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute” at bushcenter.org/catalyst.

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