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America should welcome Syrian refugees

REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
There’s plenty of evidence that taking in refugees is a shrewd investment as well as an act of compassion.

It’s an even worse time than usual to be a refugee seeking sanctuary in the United States, particularly if you’re Syrian. In the wake of November’s horrific attacks in Paris, more than half the nation’s governors said they opposed continuing to accept Syrians into the country, and presidential candidates who have demonized refugees have seen their poll numbers rise.

Jacob Cohn

This fear mongering ignores the true story of refugees in America, and it contradicts the experiences I’ve had working with refugees. I recently spent a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the International Institute of Minnesota, a St. Paul-based organization that resettles refugees in the Twin Cities and provides citizenship services, employment training and educational opportunities to new arrivals. During my time there, I had the opportunity to get to know some of our clients, and I developed an admiration for their commitment to building successful lives in their new homes.

Many of them have spent years or even decades in camps before coming here; often they have little formal education and, in some cases, must live with trauma caused by the conflicts that displaced them. Yet every day I encountered strong people determined to improve their education, advance their careers, and build secure lives for their families. I’d encourage those skeptical of allowing more refugees into the U.S. to volunteer with a group like the International Institute and get a firsthand look at the challenges that refugees must overcome to succeed in this country and the commitment of most of them to doing so.

My belief that Americans should welcome Syrian refugees doesn’t just stem from my own experiences and values, though. There’s plenty of evidence that taking in refugees is a shrewd investment as well as an act of compassion.

Self-sufficiency encouraged

Some Americans believe that accepting more refugees means more government handouts and fewer people working. The truth is that from the moment they arrive in the U.S., refugees are encouraged to find employment and become independent. Compared to other countries, the U.S. resettlement program places a greater emphasis on building self-sufficiency — refugees are even obligated to repay the cost of their plane ticket to the U.S. Resettlement agencies only provide core services (housing, clothing, food) for a maximum of three months, and refugee-specific government cash and medical assistance is only available for the first eight months. Studies have found most refugees are able to find employment within eight months; in fact, refugees are actually slightly more likely to be employed than native-born Americans.

Research has consistently shown that welcoming refugees has tangible long-term economic benefits. Once established in their new homes, refugees often open up new businesses and create jobs, and their purchasing power has a positive effect on the economies of communities that welcome them. For example, a 2012 study focusing on refugees in the Cleveland area found they generate $48 million per year in economic activity, a huge return on the $4.8 million in annual government funding that refugee agencies there receive. In Utica, N.Y., where around 1 in 5 people is a refugee, these new arrivals are helping to revive an economically depressed city by buying and renovating homes and starting new businesses in once-shuttered storefronts. A 2013 study commissioned by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce found that immigrants benefit our state through purchasing power, taxes and entrepreneurship as well as replenishing the work force; Syrian refugees tend to be better educated than many immigrants, making them especially well placed to succeed in America.

Process takes years to complete

Many Americans would counter that these benefits are not worth the national security risk posed by Syrian refugees. But the truth is that the threat is minimal, and such fears are based on a lack of familiarity with how hard it is to come to the U.S. as a refugee. Unlike asylum-seekers in Europe, Syrian refugees coming to our country are resettled by the United Nations, which refers only the most vulnerable. A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine by Devon Cone, a longtime resettlement interviewer for the State Department, explains that this process takes years to complete; refugees are exhaustively interviewed and vetted by multiple government departments as well as the intelligence community. This makes the resettlement process the hardest way to enter the U.S. “short of swimming the Atlantic,” in the words of David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee. None of the thousands of refugees admitted since 9/11 has been found to pose a credible threat to attack the U.S.; instead, examples from across the nation have shown that welcoming refugees and providing opportunities for them to succeed helps communities prosper.

We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking we need to choose between our compassion and our security and economic interests. By fulfilling our moral obligation toward our fellow human beings, we can make our country stronger.

Jacob Cohn is a Minneapolis resident who served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in St. Paul from 2014 to 2015. 


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 02/20/2016 - 09:41 am.


    This is not a “Yes/No” issue.

    Let us follow a “Three C” approach: Compassion, Common sense, Caution.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 02/20/2016 - 10:26 am.


    During a tour of the Immigrant museum in NYC a few years ago the tour director made an interesting comment, ‘In the US we like immigrants as long as they have been here for a while’. Every major wave of immigrants to the US has faced discrimination.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/22/2016 - 12:15 pm.

      Immigration Museum

      I love that museum. It’s a great place to get a slice of what life used to be like back in the day and highlights how far we’ve come. And it demonstrates how far we still have to go with our attitude towards immigrants.

  3. Submitted by bea sinna on 02/20/2016 - 11:39 am.

    Somali immigrants in Minnesota

    What is the Somali immigrant population in Minnesota and what is the employment rate of this population?

    • Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 02/21/2016 - 08:04 am.

      Minnesotans like their immigrants to stay in their own yard

      My admittedly anecdotal experience working with immigrants daily is that native Minnesotans love the idea of *being seen* to be welcoming. Once immigrants arrive however, they’re often relegated to pockets of Mpls/St. Paul (ghettos?) and ignored by the whiter populous.

      Most Minnesotans don’t have any idea what the Somali population in Minnesota is nor where their unemployment ranks. That kind of disengagement makes it difficult to achieve a truly welcoming state.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 02/22/2016 - 09:14 am.

        … the whiter populous.

        Hmmm….not helpful here. The history of immigrants has been to gather in “pockets” [I prefer “neighborhoods”] where common cultural factors (language, mostly) add comfort to transition. New York City’s history is perhaps the best example of multiple periods and particulars.

        Nordeast Minneapolis has more Catholic churches per square mile than nearly any other area of the U.S.
        Why? Because each church served a particular Eastern European (mostly) segment based on language and tradition. In time, with social and workplace interactions, and the learning of English by most all, those divisions began to meld. We Minnesotans are mostly offspring of early German, Northern and Eastern Europeans, with a very early history of Mexican populations in Saint Paul, for example, as well as vibrant Italian communities.

        Minnesotans are known as charitable and giving people, in large part due our our individual ethnic/cultural histories of assimilation. I grew up in a beautiful river town with six Lutheran churches around the public park–one founded for each European/Scandinavian language.

        As late at 1980, Caledonia, Minnesota retained two Roman Catholic parishes in that very small community; one Irish, one German. The Bishop of Winona tried for countless years with many priests to merge the two.
        One late point of contention was the emotional/practical matter of architecture. The beautiful sanctuary with glorious stained glass was by far the smaller; while, the larger edifice to accommodate the merger was very plain. There are always difficult issues in transition and assimilation, both emotional and practical.

        Frankly, we need no rhetoric of “disengagement” by “the whiter population.” Not helpful.
        A simple review of our compassion and success in welcoming and aiding assimilation of Vietnamese and Hmong refugees is perhaps the best retort to misplaced criticism. The Hmong transition was long and more difficult, due mainly to significant issues of “culture shock.” That took awhile, but has proven mostly successful.

        Your argument does not hold up to our past performance. If present performance is not somehow up to that standard, perhaps we should look deeper into the dilemma; however, any progressive solution requires cooperation, patience, civil rhetoric and, most importantly, desire by all parties for success.

    • Submitted by Max Millon on 02/22/2016 - 10:08 am.

      Employment Rate

      Proportion of Adults Working:

      Minnesota as a whole: 70.4%
      MN Foreign-Born Adults: 68.6%
      MN Somali Community: 54.5%

      The number of foreign-born Somalis working has jumped nearly 10% in the past decade. MN Compass data shows that the number of foreign-born adults participating in the workplace increases with the number of years they have been in the US. At 11-15 years in the US, the proportion of foreign-born adults working exceeds the portion of Minnesota as a whole.

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