Somalian refugee Mohamoud Saed stands in his friend’s clothing shop he helps out with in Clarkston, Georgia. AP Photo/David Goldman

With better data, we can help set refugees up for success

In the next few months, Congress will consider a bill that would cut the number of refugees allowed into the country by more than half.

Supporters say this bill would help create job opportunities for U.S. workers and spur economic growth. Yet, arguments that refugees do more damage than good simply don’t hold water.

A recent report from the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, where I work, outlines refugees’ significant contributions to the U.S., in both economic and human terms. These range from starting small businesses to generating tax revenues and creating new jobs.

With that in mind, our report recommends addressing a question Congress has given less consideration: How can we better support the success of refugees? Our findings suggest that data play an important role.

Gaps in data

Officials from the Office of Refugee Resettlement have emphasized that collecting comprehensive data on refugee outcomes would be “game-changing.” It is important for two main reasons. It provides us with an accurate portrait of how refugees function in our society. And, it helps us identify gaps in services.

Although the Office of Refugee Resettlement collects some information on refugee outcomes, it has generally focused on short-term economic self-sufficiency, including how much refugee families earn. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has not systematically documented long-term outcomes and indicators of integration, such as refugee health, housing, education, economic opportunity, social connections or civic engagement. In fact, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has not even adopted an official definition of integration, which makes it difficult to measure.

Other data on refugees exist, but they are scattershot. One recent study, for example, tracked refugees’ tax contributions and found that refugees contributed over US$21,000 more in taxes than they received in benefits. Another study analyzed the impact of refugee services in the Cleveland, Ohio area, where less than $5 million spent on refugee services in 2012 yielded nearly $50 million in total annual economic activity.

Yet, substantial gaps in information remain. Several years ago, for example, the Government Accountability Office cited the importance of collecting information on refugees who migrate from one location to another after resettlement. Without these data, the Office of Refugee Resettlement can’t effectively distribute resources to the communities with the greatest needs.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Annual Survey of Refugees tracks information from a random sample of refugee families. But gathering and analyzing additional information systematically requires resources the office doesn’t have.

Integration requires better data

If the government had better data, it could more quickly identify where refugees’ needs are greatest and what types of investments work best. This, in turn, would greatly strengthen the efforts of the private individuals and institutions that are vital partners in refugee resettlement.

As our report notes, these groups work alongside national and local resettlement agencies as mentors, friends and advocates for newly arrived refugees. Private co-sponsors help refugees with everything – finding housing, enrolling kids in school, linking families to health clinics, revising resumes and conducting mock interviews.

Better metrics about refugee self-sufficiency and integration can ensure that private initiatives don’t duplicate government efforts, but rather complement them.

Just the other day, the government put out a call for help from private contractors to expand efforts to track immigrant crimes. Instead of investing in these initiatives, the government would do well, in my view, to fund comprehensive data collection on the indicators that we know will help refugees succeed.

With the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States committed itself to “help[ing] refugees in this country become self sufficient and contributing members of society.” Tracking refugee outcomes would allow the government to achieve that goal. It would also yield better results for our economy and for our country as a whole.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 111,000 academics and researchers from 3,643 institutions.

Register now