Guest Commentary

The number of refugees coming to KC is way down. That’s bad for us — and our economy

Sophia Khan, a Kansas City physician and founder of KC for Refugees
Sophia Khan, a Kansas City physician and founder of KC for Refugees

Three years ago, when I started my nonprofit KC for Refugees, a need existed to help the steady flow of refugees who resettled in the Kansas City Metro area. Today, under the Trump administration, almost no one is arriving. Our open arms and vacant jobs remain empty — and that, along with a rapidly aging American population — is pushing us toward an economic crisis.

In 2016, the year before President Donald Trump took office, 85,000 refugees entered the country. This year, the White House plans to cap refugee resettlements at 30,000 people, the lowest number since 1980. That’s exactly what we see here in Kansas City. In the last decade, 4,300 refugees have resettled here, the majority of them Somalian, Burmese, Congolese and Iraqi. But between 2016 and 2017, the number of refugees resettled here fell by 65%. Last year, only five Somali refugees were resettled in our city. In a Kansas City Star story, the executive director of Della Lamb, a federal contractor that works with refugees, called the drop “astounding.”

That’s bad economic news for the Kansas City metropolitan area. The decline in refugees has crippled local aid organizations, causing dozens of people to lose their jobs. Della Lamb laid off two-thirds of its staff. I’ve been forced to scale back work with our team of big-hearted individuals, all committed to helping refugees rebuild their lives in America.

More broadly, our region is facing a demographic crisis that immigrants are vital in helping to fix. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce found that 1.6 million people in the state will retire in the next two decades, but there are only 1.4 million Missourians under 18 left to fill those positions. And that’s if the majority of those young people stay — not at all a guarantee. We’re looking at a shortage of at least 200,000 workers.

Already, refugees are filling vital roles in Kansas City and across the state. Nearly 27% of Missouri’s meatpacking workers are foreign-born, according to NAE, the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy. (In neighboring Kansas, that number increases to a stunning 64.2%.) In fact, the meatpacking industry has the fifth-highest concentration of refugee workers, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. Americans would not have steak and chicken on their dinner tables without the hard work of immigrants.

Refugee populations in the United States have been proven to enrich the communities they settle in, through a diversity of culture and ideas as well as through powerful economic contributions. According to NAE, the rates of entrepreneurship for refugees in the U.S. eclipse those of native-born Americans: Thirteen percent of refugees start their own businesses while just 9% of Americans do. The organization conservatively estimates that refugees, as a group, hold billions of dollars in spending power and pay more than $20 billion in tax contributions to federal, state and local governments each year.

I founded KC for Refugees to serve these populations and help them recover from the trauma of displacement. I am saddened to see our network, grown through coffee dates and determination, dismantled by cruel-hearted policies in Washington, D.C. The United Nations Refugee Agency notes “record levels of worldwide forced displacement” are currently occurring. Last year, they report, 68% of refugees were women and girls, survivors of violence and torture, and had legal and physical protection needs. More than half were children. The agency’s data showed that out of 1.2 million people in need of resettlement in 2018, only 55,692 found new homes. In other words, just 4.7% of resettlement needs were met.

The United States is turning away the world’s most vulnerable people at a time when the global need for resettlement is peaking, and simultaneously at a time when we need immigrants to offset our nation’s labor shortages. At KC for Refugees, we’ve shifted from helping new arrivals to supporting those who are already here. It’s important work, but it feels meager compared to all the good we could — and should — be doing.

The United States used to be an example of mutually beneficial aid, providing opportunities for those who need help, who in turn help all of us. We used to be the world’s top resettlement country. Not anymore.

Sofia Khan is the founder of KC for Refugees and a recipient of the 2016 Peace Award from the Crescent Peace Society. She practices medicine in Kansas City.