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OTHER VOICES: Refugees make Nebraska more diverse

September 12, 2018

Nebraska’s reputation for warm welcomes and hospitality is known nationally, but it’s taken an increasingly international flavor over the years.

Despite its comparatively small population, Nebraska is one of the heaviest hitters when it comes to refugee populations, resettling more of them per capita than any other state in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. While Lincoln and Omaha are the hubs, Refugee Processing Center data show that refugees have landed in 17 other communities as well.

Their addition to our melting pot makes Nebraska a better place. Both in terms of our culture and economy, refugees have contributed greatly to the Good Life.

A slew of refugee-owned businesses now dot Lincoln, which was designated a “refugee-friendly” city by the U.S. State Department in the 1990s.

Within a few blocks just east of downtown, patrons can enjoy Vietnamese pho alongside Mediterranean markets. Down the street, restaurants offer more traditional immigrant fare: Italian, Chinese and Mexican food. Chain grocery stores, too, have begun to offer more diverse dining choices, with such pairings as Middle Eastern naan alongside Czech kolaches.

This growth strengthens the economy in Lincoln and Nebraska at large as well. By ensuring these increasingly diverse populations have places to purchase food and other goods near their new homes, money stays local, boosting business and creating jobs.

And refugees are quite good at that, too.

Chris Decker, chair of the Economics Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, performed a study that discovered a multiplier effect created by first-generation, foreign-born workers. Their newfound spending power can create several thousand more jobs – and that’s beyond the documented fact that immigrants and refugees start businesses at a higher rate than native-born Americans.

With the state’s record-low unemployment and well-documented labor shortage exacerbated by federal policies, refugees have become a critical part of Nebraska’s workforce.

Sadly, in recent years, refugee admission has become a political football. People, often escaping from political turmoil we can’t imagine as Americans, have left all they know for the mere chance to live a life without the threat to life and limb that existed in their homeland.

Few states have felt the precipitous reductions – from 110,000 in 2016 to 45,000 in 2017 – in refugee resettlement as severely as Nebraska.

The Journal Star reported earlier this week in a series examining the impact of refugees in this city that the number has fallen from a few hundred annually to a few dozen thus far in 2018. In a state where nonnative people are essentially driving population growth by themselves, this drastic shift will have ramifications felt for decades.

Even in the short term, too, this state is worse off for their absence. Culturally and economically, refugees have made the Good Life even better.

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