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Syrian-Americans: model immigrants?

Shifts in thought

A study of earlier immigrants from Syria finds them ‘doing very well’ and should ease concerns about recent refugees.

A second-hand shoes dealer poses as he waits for customers at his shop at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria on Dec.18, 2016. REUTERS/
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
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  • By the Monitor's Editorial Board

A US pledge to accept 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria was achieved last summer. In all, the country has admitted more than 15,000 Syrian refugees since January 2014.

That’s a tiny fraction of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees who have fled a brutal civil war to find asylum around the world. Yet, in a US election year, even this modest commitment managed to stoke controversy and raise continuing questions over whether these refugees would become a burden, or even a danger, to American society.

An indicator of how these new arrivals may do in the United States is found in data on the 90,000 Syrian immigrants who have been in America over a much longer period of time. It shows them to be nothing short of a model group of new Americans.

“[I]mmigrants from Syria who live in the United States are in fact doing very well. They are learning English, getting good jobs, owning homes, and starting businesses at impressive rates,” say the authors of an analysis of these earlier Syrian immigrants conducted by the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. “These findings are reassuring and should provide the basis for more informed and thoughtful consideration of how to think about current and future Syrian immigrants and refugees,” the analysis concludes.

Takeaways from the report include the following:

Syrian immigrants in the US earn a good living, with a median annual wage of $52,000. This compares very favorably with the $36,000 median wage for all immigrants in the workforce and the average $45,000 annual median wage for workers born in the US, the analysis says.

Syrian immigrants are often entrepreneurs and have a high rate of business ownership. Some 3 percent of people born in the US own their own businesses; more than 11 percent of Syrian immigrants do.

Syrian-Americans tend to be well-educated, too. More than a quarter (27 percent) of Syrian-born men in the US hold advanced college degrees (master’s degree or higher).

After living in the US for at least 20 years, the data show, more than 90 percent of Syrian immigrants have become US citizens, a rate about 20 percent higher than that of US immigrants in general.

This thriving Syrian-American community should provide a solid base of support for the new Syrian refugees. The report cites the example of the Syrian-American club of Houston, a nonprofit group of largely professionals that helps new arrivals fill out job applications, drives them to job interviews, and raises funds for academic scholarships.

Despite the recent political campaign rhetoric that has raised fears about immigrants, Americans’ opinions toward these newcomers have actually become more favorable in recent years, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of adults in the US today say they think that in general immigrants have a positive influence because of the hard work and the talents they bring with them. Only about one-fourth of Americans (27 percent) expect immigrants to have a negative influence on the US (i.e., take jobs away from Americans or burden social services such as the health-care system).

That’s nearly a complete reversal of attitudes from the 1990s, the Pew center points out, when 63 percent of Americans thought immigrants were a burden on America and only 31 percent said they strengthened the nation.

The US has taken in Syrian refugees to do its part in what is a worldwide humanitarian effort. The motive has not been to necessarily benefit economically. Still this new research into how earlier Syrian immigrants have fared can only strengthen confidence that these new arrivals will become a positive force in American life.

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