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Hail the (Refugee) Maintainers: Economic Inclusion and the Refugee Admissions Program

January 28, 2018

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Narintohn Luangrath

Narintohn Luangrath is a Fulbright-Schuman Student Researcher, Harry S. Truman Scholar, and Boston College alumna. She lives in Baltimore, MD.


If you have lived in my hometown of Portland, Oregon at some point in the past thirty years, your mail may have been delivered to your home by my cousin. If you visited a dentist, another cousin of mine may have greeted you at the reception desk. And if you renovated your home with new fixtures, my aunt may have assembled those items in a factory. 

Since fleeing Laos after the country’s civil war, my relatives’ economic contributions have touched the lives of countless Portlanders. Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell’s essay “Hail the Maintainers” and their New York Times op-ed published last summer acknowledges people like my family members – Laotian refugees – who do the vital, but often uncelebrated work that keeps society functioning. My family members started arriving in the United States during the late 1970s, along with hundreds of thousands of other Southeast Asian refugees. They were part of a migration that spurred Congress to pass the Refugee Act of 1980, which provided the legal basis for today’s refugee admissions program

That’s why I was disheartened when the Trump Administration announced last fall its plans to cap refugee admissions at 45,000 in FY 2018, a historically low number. Worse still, the Administration is on track to miss its own admissions target: at the current rate, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) projects that only 21,292 refugees will be resettled by the end of the fiscal year.

Now is not the time for the United States to shirk its humanitarian responsibilities, especially when 22.5 million refugees are currently displaced worldwide. Like in Portland, numerous cities and towns across our country have been enriched by the arrival of refugees who work alongside us. And as many of these same cities and towns feel the effects of shrinking populations, cutting refugee admissions and depriving these communities of much needed contributors is something we cannot afford.                                                                                                             

So what can localities in the U.S. learn from our European counterparts, many of whom are facing demographic challenges and labor shortages? While spending last year as a Fulbright grantee to the European Union, I interviewed local government officials, public employment staff, and representatives from private industry across Germany and Sweden. Europe has been transitioning from emergency response measures to developing robust integration initiatives for its millions of refugee arrivals, and private enterprises in these localities have played critical roles in this process. 

In Germany, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – often located within the skilled trades sector and encompassing jobs as diverse as engineering, IT, manufacturing, construction, carpentry, and metalwork – have struggled to attract native-born workers in recent years. In response, SMEs in several German cities have worked with public employment agencies and local government authorities to offer refugees specialized training programs, internships, and other professional placements. SMEs are the backbone of the German economy, and the “maintainers” working in these industries are increasingly foreign-born.

Similarly, in Sweden, the Fast Track program identifies refugees with skills relevant to sectors facing labor shortages, and matches them with available jobs. In addition, both countries have developed innovative public-private partnerships and programs to assess refugees’ skills and qualifications (i.e., in the absence of formal documentation), and connect them with work and language training opportunities early in the integration process.

Of course, the initiatives developed in Germany and Sweden will not completely resolve their respective labor shortages or demographic challenges. Refugees often arrive without pre-existing professional or personal contacts and limited knowledge of the host country’s language. Long, dangerous migration journeys or prolonged stays in refugee camps can result in trauma, physical health problems, deskilling, and challenges adapting to host countries’ formal economies.

But community organizations and people like you and me can help mitigate these disadvantages. My father served as a translator and interpreter for refugees at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) in Portland during the early 1980s. He helped Laotians fill out legal documents, including those pertaining to employment and residency, thereby easing their transition to life in the Rose City.

Refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they used in public benefits, while often filling jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. The Trump Administration’s efforts to suppress these positive findings is unsurprising, but equally unsurprising is the fact that refugees are more likely to be employed than native-born Americans, thanks to the refugee resettlement program’s emphasis on getting new arrivals into jobs as quickly as possible.

But we can improve upon this work: increasing early investments in education, language learning, and job training programs, perhaps similar to the targeted efforts undertaken in Germany and Sweden, would not only help refugees find employment quickly, but also improve their chances of upward economic mobility over time.

As researchers and advocates like myself push back against the Trump Administration’s claim that refugees are a financial drain, it is also important to remember that refugees deserve our assistance not because they provide a financial benefit to our country, but because they fled persecution, war, and other horrific situations.

My Laotian family members are alive and thriving today because of the refugee admissions program, while their contributions have made Portland a better place to live. As I begin a new chapter – working in public health in Baltimore – I am proud to be a “maintainer,” and follow the path paved by those who made my life in the United States possible.