Virginia has been a center for resettling refugees, starting with Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s to Bosnians in the 1990s to Sudanese and Syrians in more recent years. In all, Virginia has resettled people from more than 100 nationalities.
Therefore, Virginians should have an interest in two recent pieces of news:
• For the first time since record-keeping began in 1946, the United States is no longer the world leader in accepting refugees. Canada is. That’s because President Trump has so severely cut back on the number of refugees the U.S. admits that we are now outdistanced by a country one-ninth our size.
• Meanwhile, the website CityLab reports that a study of the 11 cities that have resettled the most refugees per capita since 2005 finds that each one has seen its economy improve as a result. This raises the question: If refugees actually help cities grow their economies, why does Trump want fewer of them? A new book—“Team of Vipers” by former White House aide Cliff Sims—says that Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller declared that “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil.”
Before we answer those questions, though, let’s set the stage with some relevant background. Throughout our history, the United States has taken in refugees from all over the world. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allowed for 200,000 refugees to be admitted from those fleeing the Iron Curtain. After the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956, the United States admitted 35,000 Hungarians. When Fidel Castro took over Cuba, the U.S. took in a wave of Cuban refugees—more than 1 million over several decades. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 the United States took in 1.3 million refugees.
These were all episodic events that the nation handled on a case-by-case basis. Some felt the country needed a more standardized response. The result was the Refugee Act of 1980. That act gives the president the power to set a cap for the number of refugees. In 1980, that ceiling was 231,700—although the actual number of refugees admitted was somewhat lower, at 207,116. After the Southeast Asia crisis eased, the refugee numbers were adjusted downward. From 1984 to 2015, they’ve generally been set at about 70,000 annually—with the exception of a spike to 142,000 in 1993 to accept refugees after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Last year, the United States took in fewer than 24,000 refugees, the lowest in the history of the current law. That caused the United States to fall behind Canada, which accepted about 28,000 refugees.
Now comes the City Lab report. In the 11 communities it studied City Lab found that in each one, the refugees had the effect of either slowing the community’s population decline or reversing it altogether. “Without its new Bosnian community, for example, Utica [New York] would have faced a 6 percent population drop. With them, the city saw a 3 percent gain.” That ought to get the attention of rural localities everywhere that are seeing their populations shrink and those remaining populations age.
A 2017 report by the GO Virginia economic development council for the part of Southwest Virginia west of Pulaski County warned that a shrinking and aging population endangered the businesses that remain there, because a smaller labor pool made it harder for them to find workers. At what point do some businesses simply move elsewhere to find a bigger labor pool? That raises the specter of an economic death spiral; a certain amount of immigration would help prevent that.
Furthermore, a 2017 study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that refugees aren’t “takers” but “makers” who actually help grow the economy—it’s often the most entrepreneurial members of a society who find ways to escape whatever horror has befallen their homeland. That study found that over a 10-year period, refugees contributed $63 billion to the American economy.
Many parts of rural Canada (particularly Nova Scotia) have complained to their federal officials about immigration—that they’re not seeing enough immigration to keep businesses and institutions afloat. Why is rural America so different in its attitudes on immigration? There’s a moral argument for accepting more refugees, but people’s views on morality sometimes differ. The economic argument, though, seems pretty clear. To make America great again, we need more refugees, not fewer.