Immigration has long been a controversial topic in American history. New immigrants in the United States have often been met with a sense of reticence versus the open arms that people find in modern-day Canada.
The United States, however, is no stranger to large populations entering at once. In the 1800’s, there was a large influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the deadly potato famine. In the late 1800’s, a large number of Italian immigrants came to work as unskilled workers. In the early 1900’s, over a million Mexicans came to the United States when they were fleeing the Mexican Revolution. Various issues around the world have caused people to flee to the United States from Cuba to Haiti, El Salvador to Kosovo, Germany to Somalia.
In Columbus, we are home to over 55,000 Somali immigrants, the 2nd largest population of Somalis in the United States. We also are one of the top 5 destinations for Bhutanese refugees.
Though sometimes used interchangeably in current conversations, a refugee, an immigrant, and an “illegal immigrant” are quite different. A refugee, as defined by the United Nations, is someone who is fleeing conflict or persecution. In the United States alone there are over 20 million refugees. Worldwide, there are over 65 million refugees.
An immigrant would be anyone moving to the United States with the intention of living here. With our family-based immigration system, there is an emphasis on family-reunification so people often come to the United States based on family relations versus the skills or education-based points system that Canada uses. The United States operates with an emphasis on family-reunification, while Canada assigns points based on job skills, education, and language proficiency.
An “illegal immigrant” more commonly referred to as an “undocumented immigrant” is anyone who is living in the United States without permission – some people overstayed their visa, they entered without inspection, or they used a false document to enter. Desperate to escape the conditions of the home country, many of these people come from countries that do not allow them to be recognized as refugees by the United Nations, but they’re escaping many similar situations of violence and/or dire financial struggles in their home countries.
The United States has quite a rigorous process for the acceptance of refugees with an 18-month screening process. For each individual coming to the US, a rigorous vetting process occurs with a thorough review by federal agencies, background checks, in person interviews, health screenings, and cultural orientation. This year, the United States plans to allow 50,000 refugees to enter.
For many, the discussion of refugees and the hesitation about allowing them to enter comes down to safety concerns and the feeling that they will burden the economy. Recent studies, however, have found the opposite to occur. Though countries do incur a large upfront cost, it can be best viewed as an investment. Refugees often out-earn non-refugee immigrants and they add more value than the cost of receiving and resettling them.
In Columbus, we have resettled more than 17,000 refugees from around the world. In addition to refugees from Somalia and Bhutan, refugees also come from places such as Iraq, Burma, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
In Franklin County, studies have found that refugees are just about as likely as Franklin County natives to attend college. They are also entrepreneurial. There are more than 900 refugee-owned businesses in Central Ohio and those businesses employ more than 4,000 workers.
For a closer look at refugees in Ohio, you may want to see Bhutanese Nepali Neighbors: Photographs by Tariq Tarey at the Ohio History Center.
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash