My English classroom is a holy place. I teach women with braided hair or heads covered in crimson sequined hijabs and men sleepy from the night shift. My Middle Eastern and North African students laugh with me in that sanctuary, our white-walled classroom, when I remind them of the difference between “ankle” and “uncle.” When I welcome these strangers and enjoy a small part of meeting their needs, Scripture says I welcome Jesus. In this way, teaching ESL becomes holy work.
God’s Word—both Old Testament and New—overflows with references to caring for those different than ourselves. Hebrews reminds us that when we care for strangers, we may be caring for angels. And yet in 2018, the United States has admitted the lowest number of refugees since the U.S. Refugee Act in 1980.
In the United States, our collective resistance to the neediest of immigrants reflects a pattern repeated for decades. We resist immigration due to fear of harm, or simply fear of damaging our economy. However, these fears aren’t always founded—welcoming these refugees makes economic sense long-term.
Forty-three per cent of Fortune 500 companies have been founded or co-founded by immigrants or their children. For example, in 1939 a majority of Americans opposed welcoming mostly Jewish German children to the United States. Yet, the year before that Gallup poll a child, Daniel Aaron, came to the United States with his Jewish parents. He grew up to co-found the multi-billion dollar company Comcast which currently employs over 150,000 people.
In 1979, a majority opposed welcoming boat people from Vietnam. However, one child—a boy named Tri—who left Vietnam on a boat in 1986 came to the U.S. as a refugee at age eleven. He later attended MIT and started Munchery.com—a company valued at over a hundred million dollars today and which employs over a hundred people.
While few refugees, or any of the rest of us, start hundred-million-dollar businesses, many start smaller businesses that stimulate local economies. In fact, sixteen percent more immigrants own small businesses than owners who are native born. And refugees start businesses at a higher rate than other immigrants.
But what of refugees who don’t start businesses? Many of those who oppose refugee resettlement depict refugees as a drain on the economy. But the New American Economy, a bi-partisan group of Republican, Democrat, and independent mayors and business leaders, looked at the long-term economics of refugee resettlement in a 2017 study. They analyzed data considering 2.3 million likely refugees from twenty-one countries. Their findings include the following:
- While refugees who had been in the U.S. fewer than five years had a median household income of only $22,000, by the time they had been in the country twenty-five years they were making (and paying taxes on) incomes that averaged $14,000/year more than the median income of all U.S. households.
- Refugees send down roots into their American communities. They become citizens at a greater rate than immigrants in general and own homes at a rate close to the rate of U.S. citizens.
- While our native-born workforce is shrinking as these workers grow old and retire, the U.S. economy is expanding. Refugees who work and pay taxes help close the labor and tax gap left by the shrinking native-born workforce.
Amplio Recruiting is a staffing agency with personnel in Atlanta, Raleigh, Houston, and Dallas that connects companies with the refugee workforce. In November 2018, I talked with Richard Brindley, a missions pastor turned Managing Director for Amplio Recruiting in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I asked him why business people should consider hiring refugees.
“Right now, the Dallas-Fort Worth unemployment rate is 3.2%,” Brindley said. “That means that almost everyone that wants a job has a job. Employers want to grow their businesses but finding qualified and dependable workers is a challenge. We can connect them with a pool of dependable workers most companies overlook—refugees.”
“Some employers are worried about the legality of hiring refugees, but I assure them that refugees are a completely legal workforce from day one in this country. Not only that, seventy-three percent of employers have found that refugees are more dependable than the average worker they hire.”
Taylor Kulovitz, an area operations manager of Elliott Electric Supply, has begun working with Amplio Recruiting to hire employees for an area distribution center. I asked him about his relatively new refugee employees.
“They are hard-working and very appreciative of their jobs,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to work with employees with such a positive attitude.”
I asked Mr. Kulovitz if he has had to make any changes to accommodate these new hires.
“We have had to slow down the training process a little bit to make sure our refugee employees understand their job responsibilities, but the results have been worth it,” Kulovitz said. “Because they may be in school, have other work, or simply because the city is easier to navigate at night, refugees are often interested in second and third shift jobs. Those shifts are normally hard to fill, so it’s been a win-win proposition for us and for our new employees.”
“Not only that, hiring employees takes time and money. When I hire and train a refugee, I tap into their immigrant community.” Kulovitz explained that one worker he recently employed referred two other reliable employees to him.
According to research from the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management, recruiting and training an employee costs between four and five thousand dollars, so lower turnover and recruiting help represents significant savings to companies.
Some critics of refugee resettlement express concern that refugees are stealing American jobs. Multiple studies, including ones conducted by The Center for American Progress and Chmura Economics & Analytics, have demonstrated that the refugee work force helps expand a local economy, not stifle it. A South Dakota turkey processing plant faced recruiting challenges and tapped into the Karen community, refugees from Myanmar. At that time the company had a hundred and fifty employees. The availability of refugee workers enabled the processing plant to expand. Today the company employs six hundred, half of them native-born. Rather than taking jobs away from others, refugee labor enables businesses to expand, creating jobs.
Immigration also keeps the median U.S. age lower. Those concerned about the financial viability of Social Security and Medicare can surely appreciate that with immigration our workforce is set to grow by ten million people by 2025, but will decline by seven million without immigrants, according to Pew Research Center. Welcoming refugees and other immigrants shores up our workforce and helps maintain our tax base.
So every morning I welcome my refugee students with nods or hugs and questions about their families. Sometimes I enjoy a warm roll with a savory spinach and walnut filling from one of my Middle Eastern students. I long to see my students embrace my faith, and I teach them knowing that though, in these early years, they need help learning English and finding their first job or two, they are on their way to becoming fellow citizens who are building this country with their investments of hard work and perseverance. I pray that we will share an eternal kingdom one day too.
Cover image by Adam Jang