Why 19 Republican governors went against the Trump administration’s stance on refugees

February 3, 2020, 5:47 PM UTC

Last November, President Trump announced that the U.S. would accept, at most, 18,000 refugees for resettlement in 2020—the lowest number since Congress created a formal refugee resettlement program in 1980. He also issued an executive order last September allowing individual states and localities to choose whether to resettle any at all—a move that was seen as a further step by the administration to weaken the U.S. refugee program. (That order was recently blocked by a federal judge in Maryland for being “unlawful,” with the judge also noting it did “not appear to serve the overall public interest.”)

Earlier this month, seemingly in line with the White House’s initial directive, the Republican governor of Texas announced the state would not accept resettled refugees this year, even though Texan cities like Houston and Dallas have traditionally been hosts to large populations of refugees. 

But 19 other Republican governors broke ranks and joined 23 Democratic governors in agreeing to keep their doors open to refugees. Coming just four years after 29 Republican governors (and one Democratic governor) called for a halt to Syrian refugees coming to their states, this was an unexpected turn of events. 

That 19 Republican governors have publicly welcomed refugees points to the fact that—notwithstanding the heated rhetoric around refugees—they understand that refugees make important contributions to their state economies.

In 2017, there were nearly 2.5 million refugees living in the U.S., and about 96% of them were employed, according to New American Economy. That year, they brought in $91.8 billion in income, paid $25.4 billion in taxes, and held nearly $66.4 billion in spending power. 

They also create jobs for Americans: 13% of refugees started their own businesses in 2015, compared to 9% of the US-born population, according to a 2017 New American Economy report. More than 180,000 refugee entrepreneurs ran businesses that generated a total $4.6 billion that year. 

Businesses themselves are increasingly seeing the value of refugees in their workforce. As executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a network of 100 large multinationals working with refugees, I have heard time and time again from our member companies, which include global brands like Hilton, Starbucks, TD Bank, and IKEA, that refugee workers are some of the most hardworking, motivated, and loyal employees they’ve ever hired. And, critically, they stick around. In a 2018 study conducted in partnership with the Fiscal Policy Institute, 19 out of 26 employers polled reported a higher retention rate for refugees. In meatpacking plants, for instance, annual turnover was 25% for refugees, compared to 40% for other employees. In the manufacturing sector, only 4% of refugees left their jobs within a given year, compared to 11% of other workers. 

But refugees’ contributions aren’t solely measured in dollars—refugees also revitalize dying communities. In St. Louis, for example, The Economist pointed to how Bosnian refugees helped turn around a “crime-ridden” neighborhood by opening restaurants and buying vacant homes.

Trump’s executive order required every governor to go beyond rhetoric and make a practical decision on whether to accept refugees—and before the judge even blocked the order, 42 of them, across the political aisle, decided to welcome them. When governors looked squarely at what their communities needed and what would make their economies stronger, they made a clear assessment: their communities benefit from accepting refugees.

Gideon Maltz is executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees.

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