Report Highlights Economic Contributions of Refugees in Utah and the United States

Voices Utah Children LogoWelcoming refugees who flee to the United States is not just the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective. It’s also good for the continued growth of our economy, according to a new report by the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress.

The report finds that over time, refugees integrate well into their new communities. After being in the United States for 10 years, refugees are in many regards similar to their U.S.-born neighbors with similar rates of labor force participation and business ownership.  The large majority have learned to speak English after being in the country for 10 years and have become naturalized U.S. citizens after being in the country for 20 years.

“Refugees have experienced some of the most horrific of circumstances imaginable. Yet as they establish themselves in America, they get jobs, start businesses, buy homes, learn English, and become citizens,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute and principal author of the report. “Economic growth is not the primary reason refugees are resettled, but it is a positive byproduct of giving people with nowhere to turn a new place to call home. Doing the right thing is not only good for refugees—it’s also good for American communities.”

The report analyzes data about four key refugee groups in the United States: Bosnians, Burmese, Hmong, and Somalis, 6,580 of whom reside in Utah. Utah has the 14th highest number of Somali refugees (2,003 including 1,046 children age 0-18), the 16th highest number of Bosnian refugees (3,118 including 900 children), and the 24th highest number of Burmese refugees (1,370 including 891 children). The Salt Lake metro area ranks #9 among metro areas for Somali refugees and #10 for Bosnian refugees. The Salt Lake metro area is 11.8% immigrants, the Provo-Orem metro area is 7.4%, the Logan metro area is 6.5%, the St. George area is 6.2%, the Ogden-Clearfield area is 5.7%.

One in 12 immigrants in the United States came as a refugee or was granted asylum. And of around 3 million refugees, about 500,000—or 1 in 5—are Somali, Burmese, Hmong, or Bosnian refugees. Utah has 239,254 immigrants (not just refugees), including 22,040 immigrant children. Utah ranks 21st highest for our 8.4% immigrant share of the state’s population. The national population as a whole is 13% immigrants.

Key findings about Somali, Burmese, Hmong and Bosnian refugees include:

  • They are gaining a foothold in the labor market, with labor force participation rates of men in the Somali, Burmese, Hmong, and Bosnian refugee communities often exceeding those of U.S.-born men and with rates for women catching up after 10 years to about as high as or sometimes higher than those of U.S.-born women.
  • They see substantial wage gains as they gradually improve their footing in the American economy, with some starting their own businesses and many shifting to occupations better suited to their abilities as they find ways to get certification for their existing skills and learn new ones.
  • A majority have learned English by the time they have been in the United States for 10 years. In Utah, 53% of all refugees from these countries speak English very well and 64% of those who have been in the United States for more than 20 years speak English very well.
  • A large majority have become homeowners by the time they have been in the United States for 10 years.
  • Three-quarters or more have become naturalized U.S. citizens after 20 years. In Utah, 36% of all refugees from these countries are naturalized citizens.
  • A large majority of refugees who arrive in the United States as children graduate from high school. Child refugees are more likely to graduate from college than adult refugees. 

“The United States has a great track record of welcoming thousands of refugees each year and helping them find a safe place to call home. As this report confirms, refugees, who come from diverse backgrounds and humble beginnings, end up doing very well in the United States,” said Silva Mathema, Senior Policy Analyst for the Immigration team at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report. “Now is not the time for the United States to pull back on welcoming refugees. Rather, given the global refugee crises currently confronting us, now is the time to welcome and invest in programs and policies that help to integrate them.”

Read the full report, “Refugee Integration in the United States.”