Rhetoric about refugees in the United States is often dominated by discussions about humanitarian obligations on the one hand and public safety concerns on the other. While both are clearly relevant, this narrow focus misses what many American communities see as the most enduring legacy of these newcomers: the positive economic impact they have on the cities and towns that they ultimately come to call home. Refugees have entrepreneurship and homeownership rates that far exceed that of other immigrants. Many aging and once declining communities—from Utica, New York to Bevo Mill in St. Louis—have credited young, entrepreneurial refugees with reinvigorating their local economy and commercial main streets.1

1 Sasha Chanoff, “Refugees Revitalize American Cities,” November 25, 2016. Available online.

Upwardly Mobile

Unlike other immigrant groups, refugees often arrive in the country without a family network or strong connections to local employers. But, much like the many immigrants who came before them, they quickly begin to build new lives and achieve greater economic success. At right, we show how the household incomes of refugees grows with additional time in the United States. By the time a refugee has been in the country for more than 25 years, their household income reaches $67,000, far higher than the $53,000 median income of American households overall.

Median Household Income of Refugees, by Length of Time in the United States, 2015
5 Years or Less $21,782
6 and 15 Years $36,886
16 and 25 Years $51,113
More than 25 Years $67,000


Refugees stand out from the broader U.S. population in one way that is very important to American workers: Their rates of entrepreneurship. During the last three decades, businesses less than five years old have been responsible for almost all the net job creation in the United States.2 While it has long been known that immigrants overall are considerably more likely to start firms than the U.S.-born population, our figures show that refugees have an entrepreneurship rate that outshines even that of other immigrants.

1 Jason Wiens and Chris Jackson, “The Importance of Young Firms for Economic Growth,” September 13, 2015. Available online.

Number of Likely Refugee Business Owners, 2015 181,463
Rates of Entrepreneurship, 2015
U.S.-Born 9.0%
Non-Refugee Immigrants 11.5%
Refugees 13.0%

Economic Impact at the Local Level

We also looked at data for the cities and counties that have accepted the largest numbers of refugees per capita in recent years. From high-income communities like Fairfax County, Virginia to traditionally middle class cities like Sacramento, California, refugees are consistently showing that, provided the opportunity to build new lives in this country, they grow their incomes and contribute meaningfully to their new communities. In some areas, we find that refugees are especially entrepreneurial, creating businesses in significant numbers and opportunities for American workers.

Key Local Stats
21.1 percent: Share of entrepreneurs in Garden Grove, CA, refugee, 2015
10 percent: Share of entrepreneurs in Alexandria, VA, refugee, 2015
9.1 percent: Share of entrepreneurs in El Cajon, CA, refugee, 2015
Median Household Income of Refugees in Selected Cities
Location Less Than 5 Years 5 to 15 Years 16 to 25 Years More than 25 Years
DeKalb County, GA $19,231 $31,000 $40,046 $63,000
King County, WA $20,023 $25,808 $41,293 $79,091
Fairfax County, VA $28,455 $48,478 $79,961 $114,400
Dallas County, TX $24,028 $35,040 $44,651 $68,078
Sacramento, CA $21,077 $37,886 $45,052 $70,610

Income, Tax Contributions, and Spending Power

Despite leaving extreme and dangerous situations in their home countries, refugees are often able to rebound and prosper as they become more integrated into American society. We find 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. While impressive, it is worth noting that these figures are conservative. Our analysis captures almost 2.3 million likely refugees, yet a full 3.4 million have settled in the country since 1975. Our detailed methodology is available here.

Household Income, Tax Contributions, and Spending Power of Likely Refugee Households, 2015
Total Income $77.2B
Federal Taxes Paid $14.5B
State and Local Taxes Paid $6.4B
Spending Power $56.3B

Impact on Crime

When a large number of refugees arrive in a given city, does crime rise in subsequent years? To examine this, NAE used FBI crime statistics to look at the crime rate patterns in the 10 cities that resettled the most refugees relative to the size of their population between 2006 and 2015. In nine of the 10 cities, both violent and property rates crime fell, in some cases, dramatically. The one city that saw crime increase was battling a well-documented opioid epidemic during this same period.

Change in Crime Rates in Cities that Resettled the Most Refugees Relative to the Size of their Population, 2006-2015
City Percent Change in Violent Crime Rate Percent Change in Property Crime Rate
Clarkston, Georgia -4.8% -8.0%
Decatur, Georgia -62.2% -8.9%
El Cajon, California -31.7% -43.7%
West Springfield, Massachusetts 87.9% 2.6%
Utica, New York -20.0% -23.6%
Southfield, Michigan -77.1% -46.0%
Syracuse, New York -25.6% -24.9%
New Bern, North Carolina -37.5% -36.5%
Lancaster, Pennsylvania -20.6% -38.1%
Glendale, California -47.1% -10.9%
Twin Falls, Idaho -4.3% -35.4%


Because they have often fled untenable situations back home, refugees tend to be highly motivated to embrace their new lives in America. Refugees have far higher naturalization rates than immigrants in the country overall. They lay down roots and invest in their communities by buying homes at similar rates to the U.S.-born population. And they also quickly acquire English language skills, allowing them to better assimilate.

Key Stats
26.5 percent: Share of refugees in the country less than five years who report speaking English very well or exclusively.
53.6 percent: Share of refugees in the country five to 16 years with that level of command of English.
84.0 percent: Share of refugees in the country between 16 to 25 years who have become citizens.
51.1 percent: Share of immigrants in the country overall for that long who have naturalized.
Homeownership Rates of Refugees and Other Population Groups, 2015
Share of Households that Own their Home Number of Home-Owning Households
Refugees 57.4% 596,969
Non-Refugee Immigrants 50.6% 8,034,270
U.S.-Born 65.8% 65,824,875

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New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…