There’s much more we can do to integrate refugees into the economy

From Afghanistan to Utah.
From Afghanistan to Utah.
Image: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Three months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst fears of the health threat to refugees have so far—almost miraculously—not come to pass. But the economic impact on refugees around the world has been devastating, and it has laid bare the challenges that refugees in every society face in building productive new lives. Particularly here in the United States, as the labor market starts to show signs of recovery and we contemplate how to “build back better,” there is much more we can do to help refugees reach their full potential in the workplace, and to help society benefit from it.

The refugee story in the United States is a paradox. There’s abundant evidence that refugees flourish over time and make significant contributions to the economy. The New American Economy, for example, has found (pdf) that, after 25 years, refugees’ median income exceeds that of native-born Americans, while a working paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that after 20 years, refugees pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

On the other hand, refugees face steep barriers to economic integration on arriving in the United States. With negligible financial assistance from the government for only a few months (while being required to repay the cost of their flights), they face severe pressure to secure immediate employment, and they must do so while navigating a broad range of challenges—from language barriers, to limited or no accreditation of their prior education and training, to transportation challenges. That refugees eventually succeed in this country is a testament to their resilience and motivation, not the welcome we afford them.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare just how tenuous integration is for recently arrived refugees in the United States. We’ve heard from numerous nonprofits and companies that refugees have been laid off in disproportionate numbers. For example, one of the country’s leading refugee-serving organizations, HIAS, has disclosed that 70% of the refugees it works with have lost their jobs in recent weeks. Not only has the economic dislocation been vastly greater for refugees than for the population overall (less than 15% of American workers have lost their jobs in the crisis), it has hit a community that has scant savings and, in many cases, has been excluded from the federal government’s relief assistance and unemployment benefits.

As a society, we need to do more to integrate refugees into the labor market and economy. Here’s how we can do it.

Fix the hiring process

First and foremost, businesses could and should do more to lower barriers for refugee job seekers, starting with a review of their hiring processes to make them more inclusive for refugees. For example, companies can create protocols to ensure that they don’t automatically discard resumes from refugees that—inevitably—show gaps in employment. They can review their job descriptions to make sure that they don’t require a level of English proficiency in excess of what the positions themselves may need; and also take into account that refugees tend to improve language proficiency fastest on the job. Companies also can make basic transportation arrangements for a few months until refugee employees are able to obtain drivers’ licenses and access to a car.

Companies that take these modest steps, and integrate refugees into their broader efforts of diversity and inclusion, won’t only be helping a vulnerable group—they’ll be making an investment in their own business. Research shows that refugees have much higher retention rates than other workers. In the US manufacturing sector, for example, refugees were almost three times more likely to stay in their job compared to their non-refugee counterparts. Indeed, the companies we work with at the Tent Partnership for Refugees routinely report that refugees are among their most dedicated, committed, and resilient employees.

Harness the expertise

Second, state and local governments should do more to harness the skills and expertise that refugees bring, by taking steps to recognize their foreign training and credentials. The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the challenges that refugees face in practicing medicine. The Migration Policy Institute found that over 260,000 immigrants and refugees with undergraduate degrees in health-related fields are either out of work or underemployed in low-paying jobs that require significantly less education. There’s a similar dynamic in myriad other fields too, from engineering to social work to tree-trimming (for which California requires four years’ experience and two exams).

While these occupational-licensing regulations do sometimes serve legitimate social goals, too often they serve primarily to protect incumbents. These regulations come most of all at the expense of refugees and immigrants, forcing them to take lower-skilled jobs on arrival, and wasting expertise that could benefit their communities and the economy. State and local governments can support integration by making it easier for refugees to practice the professions they’ve been trained to do.

Taking these steps to lower barriers for refugees entering the workforce, and recognizing the training and expertise they bring, is not charity. It’s an investment in our society and economy. If refugees can contribute so much economically and socially after two decades, despite the challenges they face, how much more might they contribute if we eased their path to economic integration from the start?