What Would Happen if the US Followed Germany's Lead and Accepted Thousands More Refugees?


Europe is facing a crisis that is straining its political and social fabric: an influx of migrants and refugees on a scale larger than the continent has seen in decades.

In July, a record number of 107,500 migrants reached European Union borders — triple the number that did so last year, according to the BBC. The migrants are predominantly from North Africa and the Middle East, and while their motives for making the journey to Europe vary, a large number are refugees who have been displaced by civil war in Syria and other conflicts in the region.

Four million people have fled Syria since the beginning of the war, resulting in the largest refugee crisis in a quarter of a century. While most of those who have fled have gone to neighboring countries, an increasing number have made the arduous trek to Europe. In September, a photograph of a young Syrian boy on a beach in Turkey who drowned trying to reach Greece captured the world's attention, and spurred action by European countries and international organizations to formulate solutions to the crisis.

So far, Germany has taken a leadership role in taking in refugees. The German government expects to take in between 800,000 and 1 million people seeking asylum this year, and could take in half a million in the coming years. Other countries in Europe haven't been quite so welcoming — nations in southern and central European countries like Greece and Hungary have cited economic concerns and outright xenophobia as reasons for hosting much smaller numbers. The United States, which has taken in about 1,500 Syrian refugees so far, has offered to take in just 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next year.

How should European countries be dealing with the influx of migrants and refugees, and how will these thousands of new residents affect the social and economic dynamics of the European Union? Should the United States substantially increase the number of Syrian refugees it is willing to accept? 

Mic spoke on the phone with Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, where he leads the Migration and Development initiative, to discuss these questions and more. He believes this isn't a crisis of migration, but one of smart policy and cultural openness — and the United States can learn from the situation to inform how we treat immigrants and refugees here at home.

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Mic: How well do you think Europe and Germany in particular are responding to this crisis?

Michael Clemens: The crisis is not so much one of the number of migrants as of the policy that is required to handle it. The largest forecast for the number of refugees that there might be in all of Europe by the end of this year, including this recent influx, doesn't even come to 0.4% of the population.

During the Yugoslavian crisis in the early 1990s, all of Europe hosted many more than that. In 1956, when there was a Soviet crackdown and something close to a civil war in Hungary, 200,000 people left, and Austria ended up with about 2% of its population as refugees. This was a time when Austria was way poorer than Europe is now, and still devastated by war. They were able to host those refugees because they decided that it was important.

That's where I get to the policy crisis. These numbers can certainly be handled, but the willingness of countries to work together and solve the crisis, as they did in 1956, is what's lacking. There have been countries that have stepped up, like Germany, and there have been countries that have not, like the U.K.

Why does the German government seem so welcoming to migrants? How much of it is the obligation to accept refugees based on international law? Is there an economic incentive to accepting the newcomers?

MC: There is research comparing different countries' experiences showing that countries are much more willing to accept refugees in good economic times, so that is a general pattern across the world, but I couldn't say it is the reason that Germany is willing.

I know that Germany in recent years, long before this crisis, has been much more amenable to receiving other kinds of migrants. I'm not talking about refugees now, I'm just talking about employment-based and family-based migration. It's been way more open than other countries, and fundamentally that is because of demographic change. Germany is shrinking, literally shrinking. They're going to lose a very large fraction of the labor force, and they need migrants' youth and energy.

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Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley has called for the U.S. to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees in response to its civil war, and momentum seems to be growing for the U.S. to respond more effectively. [Editor's note: The White House announced after this interview was conducted that the administration is preparing to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year.] What should U.S. policy be with respect to refugees from Syria, and refugees more broadly? Can we afford to be more generous?

MC: Refugees are an investment in the future. And they're often framed as a burden, and words like "generosity" are used — and I don't fault you for using that — because prima facie it is a generous act to sponsor somebody in need and assist them. But over the medium and long term, refugees are tremendously beneficial to the countries they go to.

There's an economist at Texas A&M, Kalena Cortes, who followed refugee and non-refugee migrants who arrived in the U.S. in the late 1970s, and compared them to 10 or 15 years later. She found that the refugees were doing better economically and had learned English better than non-refugee migrants who arrived in the same cohort. That is, not only are they adding value as much as other migrants do, but they're adding even more value.

I mentioned that wave of Hungarian refugees earlier, of which the U.S. eventually took 80,000. One of them, Andrew Grove, cofounded Intel. Every iPhone is running on the chip of a guy who left Hungary as a young man, and arrived in New York with the help of the International Rescue Committee. Ten years later he became the third employee of Intel, and in 1997, he was the Time Person of the Year.

At the time, if you're sitting in New York in 1956, you see this kid with no college degree arrive, and you say, "Well, what a burden, isn't it generous of us to allow him to come." But in fact it was he who assisted us to create an entire new industry and all of the jobs and all of the economic growth from that. He was a gift.

Petros Giannakouris/AP

That is the reason that the U.S. should certainly share in the responsibility of assisting and re-settling these migrants, not only because it is the generous, right thing to do, but because it is in the self-interest of the country.

Do you have any numbers in mind that you'd suggest for the U.S.?

MC: In terms of what the U.S. could take, all of [the current] numbers are made up. There is a guideline for the administration, which is there should be something like 70,000 refugees a year, but it's not based on any assessment of the medium- and long-term effects of refugees on the U.S. It's a number that emerged from a purely political process.

The only guideline we could look to would be history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, we were taking between 120,000 and 130,000 refugees a year for several years. In recent years, we've taken as few as 45,000. In the last couple of years, we've taken 70,000.

The nation is bigger, the nation is richer and the economy is larger than 25 years ago when we were taking almost three times as many as we have taken in some recent years. So there's a guideline.

What would happen if the U.S. accepted thousands more refugees? What are the benefits and downsides, in terms of the economy, security and society, of playing a leadership role comparable to Germany?

MC: I've never seen credible evidence of an economic or security downside. The downside is a fiscal one, and an institutional one. We have a certain capacity to process asylum claims, which takes a lot of resources. We have a certain capacity to assist refugees with resettlement and integration. They have to be housed, there's job-training — that's costly.

I have never seen any evidence at all that they contribute to any security risks or social malady like crime. I've never seen any evidence of anything but economic gain. Refugees do better in the labor market than non-refugee migrants. 

Not only that, but they benefit the people around them. Giovanni Peri at UC Davis and Mette Foged of the University of Copenhagen got their hands on this incredible database of every single human being in Denmark from 1990 to 2010. They showed that Danish workers who start out in areas where lots of refugees come in and do low-skilled jobs end up earning more than people who work in areas that don't get lots of refugees.

Not only are refugees doing well themselves and becoming consumers of goods and services produced by natives, and benefiting natives that way, they're actually shaping the labor market in a way that benefits natives.

How can this help us think through the debate over the 11 million undocumented immigrants within our borders? Some on the right like Donald Trump say that the flow of undocumented immigrants has contributed to a rise in criminal activity and a loss of jobs for native-born Americans. But a lot of the panic seems ahistorical — the U.S. has benefited from waves of mass immigration before, much of it unregulated, has it not?

MC: Donald Trump is completely ignorant about the subject. Everything he says is motivated by politics and not by knowledge of or interest in the truth.

You can look at the U.S. in 1905, and see that there were about 75 million people at that time, a quarter of the current size, and unemployment was about 5% in that year. Here we are 110 years later, and the U.S. is more than four times larger and unemployment is at about 5%. A little less than half of that quadrupling in size was due to more people arriving, and the number of jobs created was essentially exactly equal to the number of people who arrived.

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That wasn't because anybody sat down and designed it that way — that's how an economy works. When people arrive to do jobs, they don't just do those jobs, they also become consumers of the product of other people's jobs. They don't just come and work in convenience stores — they take the money that they earn there and buy stuff in a clothing store. Americans are working in that clothing store, and Americans have invested capital in that clothing store, and they become part of the economy. Populist politicians like to focus on exactly one half of that equation.

On crime, there has been decades of research by credible social scientists about any relationship between immigration and crime, and the conclusion is that immigration reduces crime. This has been shown not only in the U.S., but in several other countries, the U.K., France, Germany and so on.

Anybody can note the fact that during exactly the period that unauthorized immigration to the U.S. accelerated from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s, the homicide rate in this country collapsed. If there were to be some sort of social unraveling or increased crime from those generally hardworking, modest people who come exactly for the purpose of working and making a better life, then that's where you would see it. You don't see anything of the kind.

While many of the people migrating from Central America into the U.S. aren't fleeing wars or classic political persecution, many of them are fleeing situations of extreme economic hardship or natural disasters. Should we be thinking of them as refugees?

MC: That's a great question, and it's not settled. The international legal definition of a refugee is someone who faces a credible threat of violent persecution based on membership in a well-defined social group, a definition the U.S. has adopted since 1980 (prior to that, it's definition also included someone fleeing natural catastrophe).

One of the worst earthquakes in a millennium hit Haiti in 2010, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed — entire families were wiped out, entire industries were wiped out. But not one person fleeing the island for that reason could be qualified as a refugee, and for that reason, nobody except a few people who were flown out for medical emergencies, could get the kind of assistance to arrive and integrate in the U.S. And that's just the tip of the iceberg of what you're talking about.