Refugees Are An American Immigration Success Story


Refugees succeed in America by working hard, finding niches and increasing their education and ability to speak English, according to new research. The study finds refugees experience rapid earnings growth and commit far fewer criminal offenses than the U.S.-born. Refugee admissions reached historic lows under the Trump administration but have increased under Joe Biden, including the most recent presidential determination.

Rapid Growth In Refugee Earnings

“Real earnings for refugees increased by 70% in the 10 years after arriving in the United States, showing refugees integrate and make economic progress in America,” according to a new National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) analysis. “The research finds refugees have low rates of incarceration and, over time, significantly increase their education level, use less welfare and improve their ability to speak English.”

Mark Regets, an NFAP senior fellow and formerly an economist at the National Science Foundation, examined more than 30 years of data. He found refugees start with lower earnings but, on average, over the next 10 years, have far higher real earnings growth than other workers: 70% for refugees vs. 25% for the U.S.-born. (Real earnings are income adjusted for inflation.)

He conducted the research by analyzing earnings growth and Census and immigration data on individuals aged 21 to 54 who entered America from countries with a high percentage of refugee admissions over five-year periods from 1985 through 2009.

The president determines the annual ceiling for refugees, in consultation with Congress, and the U.S. Department of State administers the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Despite the divisiveness on immigration today, the U.S. Senate passed the Refugee Act of 1980 in a unanimous vote.

“Like other immigrants,” writes Regets, “refugees improve with time in the United States, particularly by investing in their skills and education, explaining why a dynamic analysis presents a more accurate picture of refugee integration than snapshots taken soon after refugees arrive.”

Iraqis who came to America between 2005 and 2009 had real earnings growth of 127% over the next decade, compared to 25% for U.S.-born workers. Afghans who came to the United States between 1985 and 1989 after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan saw 98% growth in real earnings over the next 10-year period, compared to 35% for U.S.-born workers. Vietnamese who arrived in America between 1985 and 1989 experienced 89% real earnings growth over the next decade.

“Refugees succeed in America because they add value to the U.S. economy and benefit Americans,” according to Regets. “Due to their rapid income growth, within a decade, refugees generally no longer have low incomes. Refugees show they adapt to the U.S. labor market and overcome the circumstances that drove them from their countries of birth. Refugees invest in U.S.-specific skills, find niches and make the U.S. economy more dynamic by 1) adapting to existing needs and 2) providing services that we didn’t know were desired or needed, such as by founding or working in new restaurants, nail salons and other businesses.”

Refugees Increase Their Education And Ability To Speak English

Refugees speak English or improve their ability to speak English and raise their educational level, according to the research. About 20% of refugees aged 21 to 54 attend school soon after arriving in America.

More than 83% of refugees coming to the U.S. between 1985 and 2009 spoke English a year or more after arrival, which rose to 92% a decade later.

Nearly half of refugees arriving between 1985 and 2009 spoke English well a year or more after arriving. That rose to 66% 10 years later, or 35% more.

Refugees enter America at relatively high levels of education and improve with more time in the United States, according to the data. “In the year after arrival, 21.7% of refugees arriving between 1985 and 2009 had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 26.5% for the U.S.-born. Ten years later, 28.2% of refugees arriving between 1985 and 2009 had a bachelor’s degree, an increase of 30%.”

Remarkably, the number of Ethiopians who came to America between 1985 and 1989 with a bachelor’s degree increased from 17% in 1990 to 45% by 2000, rising more than 150%.

Seventy percent of refugees arriving in the United States between 1985 and 2009 had a high school degree or higher compared to 89% for the U.S.-born. After 10 years, 76% of refugees who arrived during this period earned a high school degree or higher, rising by 9%.

Low Incarceration Rates And Declining Welfare Use

Refugees appear to commit relatively few crimes. “Only 0.2% of refugees arriving in the United States between 1985 and 2009 were in jail or prison a year or more after entry vs. 1.3% for the U.S.-born,” according to Regets. “Incarceration rates remain low for refugees 10 years later.”

The more time refugees spend in the United States, the less likely they are to use welfare. On average, after 10 years, refugee use of welfare declined by 63% for those arriving between 1985 and 2009 (9.4% in the year after arrival to 3.5% a decade later. Welfare use measures “receipt of any public assistance income,” which includes state and federal assistance.

“The rapid earnings growth of refugees,” concludes Regets, “and their improving levels of education and ability to speak English show they integrate into American society, fill niches and expand the economy, rewarding the American people for welcoming them to a new land.”

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