Opinion: Don't close the door on refugees

Steve Tobocman
Yasir Ibrahim, an Iraqi refugee, speaks on opening up his own restaurant, Casper Burger and Escolope in Sterling Heights, Tuesday, October 17, 2017.

Last week, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would cap the number of refugees resettled over the next fiscal year at 30,000, the lowest level since presidential discretion was given to the program in 1980 and less than half of historic levels.

The policy reflects a stark retreat from America’s historic role as the world’s leading beacon for refuge, freedom, and safety inscribed by Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Yasir Ibrahim came to Detroit in 2008 fleeing persecution and ethnic violence ravaging Iraq. He quickly found work as a clerk in a dollar store stocking shelves, cleaning up, and tackling any task that would help him build a good life for himself in America, his new home. He worked hard to learn English and to save money to invest in his future. Today, less than a decade later, Ibrahim employs 15 Michiganians at his Sterling Heights restaurant Casper Burger and Escalope. His experience as a refugee entrepreneur is not uncommon according to national research by the New American Economy, which suggests that refugees are nearly 50 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than the general population.

Research by Global Detroit and the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy conservatively estimates total annual economic impact to be between $229.6 million and $295.3 million in new spending, along with between 1,798 and 2,311 new jobs, in 2016 alone, from the over 21,000 refugees in resettled into Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne Counties between 2007-2016.

Ibrahim’s entry into the U.S. was similar to the 65,000 other refugees allowed entry in 2008 and the more than 3 million refugees resettled in the U.S. since 1980. In fact, since 1980, the U.S. has accepted more than half of all the refugees resettled in new countries. The Trump administration’s policy to curb resettlement numbers comes at a time when there are more refugees globally than at any time since the Second World War. Some 22 million people—more than half of whom are children—are considered unsafe in their home countries according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

Michigan has been the fourth largest destination state for refugees over the last decade. Global Detroit’s research documents that these new Michiganians have been a source of strength to the Michigan economy—launching new businesses, providing much-needed labor, and achieving self-sufficiency within a very short time after their arrival.

While refugee policies and politics necessarily extend beyond economics, Global Detroit’s research verifies that being welcoming to refugees is in the region’s own economic self-interest. In fact, refugees account for nearly half of Michigan’s population growth since 2010. They have been a stabilizing force in Southfield, Sterling Heights, Warren, and beyond.

While humanitarian and foreign policy arguments should be the driving forces behind U.S. refugee policies, the continued economic development and community revitalization progress being made in Southeast Michigan by resettling refugees will be greatly stymied by the Trump policy to reduce the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Based on our research, this will reflect tens of millions of dollars of lost economic activity in the years to come. It means that we will be home to fewer folks like Yasir Ibrahim — ambitious, hard-working refugees seeking an opportunity to work hard and live the American Dream.

Steve Tobocman is executive director of Global Detroit and co-chair of the Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network.