New Report Finds Refugees Take Big Steps Toward Integration In Their First American Decade

The major takeaway from a new report by the Center for American Progress and the Fiscal Policy Institute is that refugees integrate soundly into American society and economy in their first decade here.

We've reported on such findings before, but this comprehensive new study focuses on four major refugee groups: Somali, Burmese, Hmong, and Bosnians, amounting to a total of about 500,000 people.

While reasons for fleeing their homelands differ, they have integrated quite seamlessly in terms of English language skills, educational endeavors, home ownership, wage growth, and other factors.

The report finds that in their first decade here, nearly nine in ten refugees learn to speak English well. Children of refugees develop remarkable command over the language, often at a level equal to natives. In fact, it's often a bigger problem for parents of refugee children to ensure they remain fluent in their native tongue than it is for them to master English.

Eighty to 90 percent of refugee children graduate from high school. Some of them, particularly Burmese refugees, graduate from college at even higher rates than U.S.-born peers.

There are areas that the report reveals refugees are integrating remarkably well in American society. Many refugees marry U.S.-born spouses, often outside their community and ethnic group. Over time, a vast majority become naturalized citizens. These refugees embed themselves in communities, making it difficult to ascertain refugees from native-born Americans.

Another example of this is home ownership rates. After a decade in the United States, the homeownership rate among Burmese and Bosnian refugees is above 70 percent and Hmong refugees are at 58 percent. Meanwhile, homeownership rates among U.S.-born Americans living is housing is 68 percent. Somalis struggle with low rates of homeownership -- and more research on why they struggle in this measure is needed.

In a number of Midwestern cities that see a disproportionate share of refugees, the report finds that refugee groups have played a vital role in metropolitan revitalization. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul, for instance, Somalis and Hmong (and a decently sized number of Burmese) helped the population rebound, opened businesses, and generally brought renewed vibrancy to the region. Bosnians helped do the same in St. Louis and Somalis in Columbus.

Part of this revitalization is driven by the strong economic integration that refugees experience across the country. The report details the impressive record of economic integration, as refugees' gain a foothold in the American labor force.

After their first decade, they have similar labor force participation rates as native-born Americans and similar business ownership rates.

Refugees experience substantial wage gains once they are established in their new country. For example, after more than a decade in the U.S., Burmese women have a median wage of $50,000--up from $21,000 for recent arrivals.

Also illustrative is that after ten years, 43 percent of Somalis have white-collar jobs, almost double the rate from when they first arrive. The report also notes that over 20 out of every 1,000 refugees are opening businesses, creating jobs and growing their local economies in the process.

This refugee labor market integration is better in the United States than elsewhere in the world, where refugees are often not allowed to work. They don't only improve their own economic circumstances; they also help grow the economy, driving wage growth for native-born Americans as well.

The takeaway of the report is clear: refugees integrate substantially and contribute positively to American society. After a decade in the U.S., adult refugees are in similar social and economic circumstances as native-born Americans, and refugee children are virtually indistinguishable from natives. And the more time spent in the United States, the more assimilated they become.

These findings are important considering the common myths surrounding the refugee debate about integration, economics, and cultural factors. While it may be counter-intuitive that refugees who have left all their possessions behind to lead a new life can thrive, the facts speak for themselves, and should be a driving force in the argument for resettling refugees into the United States.