Like most of the rest of the United States, North Carolina has a history of being a good global neighbor as a site for refugee resettlement. In 2015, 69,920 refugees arrived in our country seeking better opportunities. Though small in number (0.022 percent of the total U.S. population), they and their predecessors have helped enrich communities and revive local economies. They arrive to this country fleeing natural disasters, war zones, and repressive governments.
Despite the challenges they face in adjusting to life in a new country, many have succeeded in putting down roots in our state and in achieving a better life for their families. A recent report by the Center for American Progress highlights the successful integration of four refugee groups (Somali, Burmese, Hmong, and Bosnian) in the United States, and demonstrates the positive impact refugees can have on our broader communities. Here are just a few of the many ways:
Growing local economies by participating in the labor market – Refugees often see high rates of labor force participation, which is a strong indicator that they are integrating well into the labor market and helping boost American productivity. For those groups who have lived in the U.S. for 10 years or fewer, all had at least a 45 percent participation rate. When looking at long-term outcomes (those who have lived in the U.S. 10 years or more), all refugee groups saw significant increases in labor force participation.
Additionally, refugees often see wage increases over time, which is partly due to changes in occupation as they integrate into communities. Many also experience occupational mobility. On average, among those who have lived in the U.S. for 10 years or more, there is a significant increase in the number of refugees moving from blue collar jobs into white collar jobs.
Launching new businesses in local communities – It’s no secret that immigrants make up a substantial portion of the American small business community as business owners and entrepreneurs. This fact remains true among refugee immigrant groups. Bosnians, for example, had the highest rate of business ownership among refugee groups studied, with 31 Bosnian business owners per 1,000 people in the labor force – the same as the business ownership rate among U.S.-born citizens. Burmese refugees also have a strong business ownership rate – 26 business owners per 1,000 people in the labor force. The types of businesses refugees open span many industries. From private practices to restaurants, to architectural firms, refugee immigrants are helping provide important services for local communities.
Growing numbers of refugees obtaining degrees – While levels of educational attainment among refugees tend to be a bit lower than that of their U.S.-born counterparts, among those who arrived in the country before the age of 18, there is a promising growth in the number graduating from high school and college. Among groups studied, all had high school graduation rates almost equal to that of the U.S. born rate of 90 percent. Those who arrived as children were also more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher than adult arrivals, with Bosnian (47 percent) and Burmese (33.5 percent) refugees having the highest average rates of achieving a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Becoming Americans in every sense of the word – Refugees who choose to apply for naturalization must complete a series of requirements such as passing a citizenship test, taking an oath of allegiance to the U.S., and, for most, providing evidence of English language proficiency. More than three-quarters of the refugee groups studied who lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years had become naturalized citizens. Even for those who had lived in the U.S. 11 to 20 years, all refugee groups had naturalization rates of more than 50 percent. It’s clear that refugees have a strong desire to become Americans in every sense of the word, and many of them are successful in reaching this goal. As U.S. citizens, refugees can cast ballots, obtain a U.S. passport, and serve on juries. By participating in civic life, they help strengthen our democracy and move our society towards progress.
Victoria Crouse is a public policy intern at the North Carolina Justice Center.