When I was elected mayor of Clarkston, Georgia, in 2014, I chose not to take an office in City Hall — the walls were just another barrier between this elected position and the people I wanted to serve. Plus, with no desk to be stuck behind, I get to take my mayoral meetings at places like Refuge Coffee Co.
The bright red coffee truck, the smell of freshly made Ethiopian sambusas, and residents from all over the world eating, drinking, and laughing together: It exemplifies everything that makes our community great. I love spending my office hours there and at all the other businesses around town owned by Americans of all stripes. These great Clarkston companies have employees originally from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in addition to nearby Atlanta.
Clarkston has welcomed more than 40,000 refugees from every corner of the world over the last 40-plus years, and their homegrown businesses make our city unique. But more than that, they’ve turned a once-fading community, situated in the suburbs east of Atlanta, into a safer, more prosperous place for everyone. The same thing is happening in other small towns and rural communities where refugees settle, across every state in the union.
Unfortunately, future communities might not be as lucky as ours. President Trump has already reduced the number of refugees resettled in the United States to just 30,000 for 2019, the lowest number in more than 40 years. Now he is considering cutting refugee admissions to zero, effectively shutting down the program. That’s why I was so encouraged when a bipartisan group of 18 senators released a letter in early August calling Trump’s proposal “alarming” and urging the administration to increase the cap rather than make further cuts. They’re right to call for more welcoming refugee policies, and I’ll tell you why.
In the ’70s, many of Clarkston’s residents moved away during the white flight exodus from nearby Atlanta. But the rapid population decline had a silver lining: an abundance of open, affordable housing options. Over the next decade, refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries began arriving, drawn by Clarkston’s access to public transportation and reliable job openings at nearby poultry processing plants. Soon, refugee resettlement agencies took notice and families from across the world found their safe haven here. Our population grew from 5,385 people in 1990 to 12,757 residents last year, making us one of the most densely populated cities in the country. Currently, 52.9% of our overall population is foreign-born.
If you listen to how President Trump talks about refugees, you might assume our small town is impoverished and maybe even dangerous. But the opposite is true. Our new American residents are a vital piece of the fabric that makes Clarkston the vibrant community it is. They start businesses, volunteer at and run local organizations like the Clarkston Community Center, and they are civically engaged. Some work alongside me in local government, like my Vice Mayor Awet Eyasu, who I recruited to run for office and campaigned for. He became the first elected Eritrean American in the country when he won in 2015.
Our foreign-born residents have built Buddhist Temples, Ethiopian orthodox churches, and a mosque where their families come together to pray. And their children attend our schools, where they play sports together and prepare for college together. Clearly, refugees and immigrants are deeply invested in Clarkston, which is perhaps why they have made the city safer. Between 2006 and 2015, violent crime in our community decreased by 4.8%, while property crime rates dropped a full 8%. This occurred during a period of rapid refugee resettlement due to multiple humanitarian crises around the world.
The economic and civic contribution of refugees is not unique to Clarkston. In communities all over the US, refugees start businesses at a higher rate than their American-born counterparts. They fill worker shortages in vital industries like health care and manufacturing. And they contribute large sums in taxes and spending power — $20.9 billion and $56.3 billion, respectively, in 2015. According to the immigration nonprofit New American Economy, Georgia’s refugees held more than $1 billion in spending power that year.
Refugees also make the country safer. NAE analyzed FBI crime statistics for the 10 cities that resettled the most refugees relative to the size of their population between 2006 and 2015. In 9 out of 10 cities, both violent and property crime rates crime fell. In Southfield, Michigan, which saw the most drastic change, violent crimes fell by a whopping 77.1%. In the one city where crime rates increased during the timeframe, a well-documented opioid epidemic likely played a factor.
And yet, despite the evidence that refugees make this nation culturally and economically richer, the Trump administration still wants to limit the number of refugees that our communities can welcome. Today, Clarkston is one of the fastest-growing suburbs in the nation, and that’s largely because of refugees. We’re proof that these newcomers are good for our economy, our culture, and our future. To keep them out is morally abhorrent and economically short-sighted. It would hurt everyone who calls this country home.