As of this June, the United States had taken in less than 1,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria, which is pathetic, especially given our role in fueling sectarian violence across the Middle East. The president is reportedly considering more. I believe we should send over a bundle of planes and transport as many displaced Syrians as humanly possible. And we shouldn’t only do it to set a moral example for the world, something we habitually invoke when it’s time to bomb another country, but only mutter softly when there’s a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude. We should allow these refugees to migrate here because it would help our long-term economy.
Unfortunately, the summer of Trump has obliterated any rational thought about this, but the fact is that immigration has generally worked out well throughout our history. People who come to America seeking a better life for their families – not always legally – end up contributing to society, as evidenced by how they stop being labeled immigrants after a while. (Ask Irish- and Italian-Americans about that.) This influx of migrants can offer the same promise.
To understand this, you first must recognize that many economists believe the economy could suffer from lower-than-expected demand well into the future. This is the “secular stagnation” theory, and it gives us no way to rev up GDP without creating an asset bubble. But expanded immigration could give us a way out of that box, by generating higher demand for goods and services. Importantly, it could reverse the looming demographic challenge that every politician likes to talk about when they want to reduce long-term deficits through reining in support for the elderly.
Politicians constantly fret about the aging of the Baby Boom generation and the graying of society, and the effect on how many workers will be available to support the country in the future. Outside of having more children, the other way to counteract that is to accept more immigrants. Nobody would make an argument that we should only allow young refugees to enter. But that happens to be the mix: Over half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18, according to the UN.
Demography is one of the headwinds that could permanently reduce growth in future decades. But that doesn’t have to be our destiny. The prime working age population -- seen as ages 25-54 -- has tailed off since the 1990s but is finally starting to grow again. These demographic rates have a direct link to economic growth – and accepting more immigrants could kick-start it.
Obviously 100,000 Syrians, or even 1 million, in a country of over 300 million may not move the needle much in this regard. But from a regional standpoint, the benefits could be large. Take an overbuilt city with a shortage of people, like Detroit. Putting families in the tens of thousands of vacant homes would reduce blight, and allow the city to distribute services like water and electric to the whole city in a more efficient fashion.
As the Migration Policy Institute reported last year, immigration could improve skill levels for Detroit workers, revitalize distressed neighborhoods, and reverse demographic trends. There happens to be a substantial Arab-American community in metropolitan Detroit – it’s home to the largest concentration of Middle Easterners in America – mitigating concerns about social cohesion. The Detroit area actually took in thousands of Iraqi refugees over the past several years, and many who settled elsewhere ended up moving to the region because of the strong bonds there.
We actually have a solid example of how ethnic enclaves can help cities grow. Minneapolis has a large concentration of ethnic Somalians and Hmong people from southeast Asia. They own and operate hundreds of businesses, and many have succeeded as activists and politicians.
Far from turning Minneapolis into an economic wasteland, they have contributed to a booming city, with increases in entrepreneurship and diversification of its business sectors. While this has slid back somewhat because of spillover from the oil price crash in neighboring North Dakota, the Minneapolis/St. Paul region still carries an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, the second-lowest jobless rate of any large metropolitan area in the country, behind only Austin, Texas. Mayors understand the value of bringing immigrants to their communities, forming coalitions to support increasing their local diversity. And Minneapolis offers an example.
These examples show the future benefit of bringing in migrants, but what about today? You can certainly see value in expanding high-skill immigration, which could lower the cost of things like health care by introducing competition. But more broadly, there is a fallacy that increasing immigration will squeeze out native-born workers or lower their wages. Several studies find no evidence of this, and instead show that more immigrants can grow the pie by increasing demand.
These points only complement what should be a moral imperative. The costs in the interim are trivial in the larger picture. Germany plans to spend $6.6 billion to accommodate 800,000 migrants, including emergency housing for 150,000. In the context of our multi-trillion-dollar budget, this is a speck; you could purchase a handful fewer military bombers and cover the entire cost. And as an investment in the future, to keep the U.S. economy vital and strong, it’s practically a no-brainer.
Other European countries are criticizing Germany’s “generosity,” but maybe Chancellor Merkel just gamed out the long-term economic impact. We have absorbed refugees throughout our history, from Vietnamese in the 1970s to Russian Jews in the 1980s and so many more, and it’s only made our country stronger. Only one of our multitudes of presidential candidates -- Martin O’Malley -- has made the case that we should open our doors to many more of these refugees. He’s right.
Obviously, it’s difficult to divorce politics from the migrant crisis, and silly to think that an economic projection 30 years out will do the trick. There’s a persistent ugliness to the way these topics get discussed, and if we increase settlements of Syrian refugees you can bet that xenophobia will reverberate here. But the backlash of hatred should never stop countries from doing what is right. And even though they won’t appreciate it vocally, the most nativist elements will actually benefit, along with the rest of us, from welcoming planeloads of grateful new Americans.