Biden's plan to let more refugees into the country is a great way to solve the COVID recession

  • President Biden has lifted the annual cap for refugee admissions to 125,000 refugees in 2021, and that’s great news for American businesses.
  • Refugees have the right to work, are more willing to relocate, and stay longer in their jobs.
  • As the US economy recovers, businesses can fill workforce gaps by investing in the integration of refugees.

  • Gideon Maltz is the Executive Director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Swiftly after taking office, President Biden signed three executive orders on immigration in an effort to roll back the Trump administration policies. The three orders will lay the groundwork for the new administration to restore the US refugee admissions program and lift the annual “ceiling” to 125,000 resettlements annually —up from only 11,814 refugees in the last year. 

Increasing the number of refugees admitted is crucial, not just for millions of vulnerable people who will get access to the American dream, but to also ease the strain on American friends and allies.  In addition to the moral good, the increased refugee admittance will be good for American business.

The American economy is still reeling from COVID-19, but once vaccinations are widely distributed, experts expect the economy to rapidly pick up steam. When this happens, we will again encounter record workforce shortages in manufacturing, transportation, and healthcare. 

The US manufacturing sector will face a shortfall of almost 400,000 workers by 2030, reducing output by $73 billion, according to the Korn Ferry Institute. Even now, industries are struggling to find enough workers; nationwide, there are 27 open healthcare practitioner jobs for every unemployed healthcare worker, according to New American Economy. These gaps will worsen as baby boomers retire and the US labor force grows by a measly 0.4% by 2030. 

Enter refugees. As the economy recovers and unemployment drops, businesses would be smart to look to the fast-growing refugee population as a source of talent. Here’s why.

The refugee economy

First, businesses don’t need to jump through legal hoops to hire refugees. With razor-thin margins in Congress, we’re unlikely to see a desperately needed overhaul to immigration laws; businesses will continue to face significant legal uncertainty in hiring foreign-born workers on temporary visas or those without legal status. But refugees are legally present in the US, allowed to stay indefinitely, and authorized to work immediately.

Second, refugees are unusually willing to relocate for work. A recent Stanford study analyzing the experience of 450,000 refugees found that 17% had moved out of state by the time they applied for permanent resident status (typically a year after arriving). 

In contrast, fewer than 2% of Americans move out of state each year. This is critical, given that workforce shortages are often localized. A 2019 Pew study found that 39 states had more jobs than job seekers — whether Midwestern states with slowing population growth, or booming Southern states where labor supply couldn’t keep up with business needs. 

Third, refugees stay longer in their jobs. In the US manufacturing sector, for example, research by the Tent Partnership for Refugees and the Fiscal Policy Institute shows that refugees are almost three times more likely to stay in their job compared to non-refugees — a pattern repeated in the hospitality sector and many others. Lower turnover translates into savings for businesses in recruiting fees, onboarding, and training.

More generally, companies in Tent’s network attest that refugees are among their most dedicated employees. No refugee makes it to the US without resilience, strength of character, resourcefulness, and the resolve to overcome innumerable hurdles on their journey to a new home. As a business, isn’t that who you’d want on your team?

To harness refugee talent in the years ahead, businesses will need to make certain investments. They will need to forge relationships with local resettlement agencies who can provide access to workers,  refine their recruitment and hiring practices to accommodate refugees’ untraditional background (including gaps in employment and the inability to produce paperwork for their credentials), and develop structured workarounds for refugees that may not be proficient in English, such as pairing them with other employees fluent in their native language.

America has had a longstanding and bipartisan commitment to refugees, which has seen 3 million refugees come to our shores in the past 40 years. Now businesses should bolster this effort by integrating refugees into their workforce. 

This will be good for refugees who are  hungry to start new lives here. It will be good for the US economy — refugees earned more than $77 billion in household income and paid almost $21 billion in taxes in 2015, according to NAE. And it will be good for businesses that will add employees with resilience, dedication and loyalty.

Gideon Maltz is the executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees.

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