Syrian immigrants and refugees have frequently been in the news over the past year, and not always in a positive light. President-elect Donald Trump lashed out against Syrians coming to the United States during his campaign, promising a ban on immigration from countries “compromised by terrorism,” calling for “extreme vetting” of immigrants from Muslim and Arab nations, and saying of people already granted refugee status who fled Syria, “If I win, they’re going back.”1
Considering this negative rhetoric, it may come as a surprise to some that immigrants from Syria who live in the United States are in fact doing very well. They are learning English, getting good jobs, owning homes, and starting businesses at impressive rates. These findings are reassuring and should provide the basis for more informed and thoughtful consideration of how to think about current and future Syrian immigrants and refugees.
The Syrian immigrants in the study conducted for this issue brief are overwhelmingly people who came to the United States before the recent refugee crisis. Their success is a positive sign that the United States is a place that can provide opportunity for a wide range of people and shows that immigrants from Syria, like other immigrants, are making a real contribution to local economies around the country.
Their success is also encouraging as the United States continues to accept refugees fleeing the horrific Syrian war zone. Those refugees will find that it can help to have a receiving community that includes people who speak the same language; share cultural and, in many cases, religious backgrounds; and understand both sides of the transition that refugees will be making from living in Syria to living in the United States.2
Syrian refugees in the United States
In the midst of the worldwide Syrian refugee crisis, the United States admitted 15,583 Syrian refugees between January 2014 and October 2016.3 While this is a small fraction of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees registered by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as of November 2016, reaching the United States’ goal of admitting 10,000 refugees from Syria in fiscal year 2016—which it achieved by August 31, 2016—has been important as a means of demonstrating the national commitment to the international efforts to manage the refugee crisis.4
Syrian refugees arrive in the United States after an extensive and highly structured vetting process.5 As with other refugee communities, the government and resettlement agencies collaborate to find locations that are suitable for refugee resettlement: Attention is given to cost of housing, availability of jobs, and whether there is a receiving community that can help the refugees settle. In the case of Syrian refugees, there is already a significant population of Syrian immigrants living in cities such as Los Angeles; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Houston. As a recent New York Times piece notes, “To ease integration, Syrian refugees have been placed in communities where there are other Syrian immigrants.”6 Having an established Syrian community and network will most likely help the social, cultural, and labor market integration of new Syrian refugees.
The data in this issue brief are based on an analysis by the Fiscal Policy Institute of 2014 American Community Survey 5-year data.7” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015), available at https://usa.ipums.org/usa/index.shtml.] Syrian immigrants are defined as those who were born in Syria and are currently living in the United States. We consider Syrians in the United States to be immigrants irrespective of the visa category for their admission and without distinction of religious group—such as Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—since the Census Bureau surveys, including the American Community Survey, do not ask about either visa or religion. Prior to 2014, the United States had resettled few refugees from Syria. In this brief, therefore, “Syrian immigrants” refers to a group made up almost entirely of nonrefugees—which, in this case, would be the receiving community for future Syrian refugees who come to the United States.
The data illustrate that Syrian immigrants are fitting into and excelling in the United States, both socially and economically, on a wide variety of metrics taken up in this brief.
The key findings of this brief include:
Syrian immigrants earn good wages, with high levels of educational attainment
- The median annual wage for Syrian immigrants in the United States is $52,000. That is well above the $36,000 median wage for immigrants overall and higher even than the $45,000 median wage for U.S.-born workers.
- Syrian immigrants are in general very well-educated, with Syrian immigrant men especially likely to have not only a college degree but also an advanced degree such as a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree. Twenty-seven percent of Syrian immigrant men hold an advanced degree, while for other groups—men and women, U.S.-born people and immigrants—the range is between 10 percent and 13 percent.
Syrian immigrants have among the highest rates of business ownership
- Syrian immigrants have extremely high rates of business ownership. Immigrants are, in general, an entrepreneurial group: 4 percent of immigrants in the labor force are business owners, compared with 3 percent of U.S.-born people. But both groups are far outstripped by Syrian immigrants, among whom 11 percent are business owners—more than double the rate of immigrants overall and more than triple the rate of U.S. citizens by birth.
- Syrian immigrants have thriving businesses. The median earnings of Syrian business owners are $72,000 per year. These businesses provide employment, create jobs, and help spur growth in the local economy.
- The kinds of businesses that Syrian immigrants are most likely to own range from medical offices—the most prominent type of business and no doubt part of the reason for high earnings among Syrian business owners—to food services and automobile dealerships.
Syrians integrate into American society over time
- Syrians have high levels of English-speaking ability. Fifty-seven percent of Syrian immigrants who have been in the United States for more than 10 years report that they speak English at least “very well”—a higher rate than for immigrants overall, for whom the rate is 52 percent.8
- Homeownership rates among Syrian immigrants are similar to those of other immigrant groups, with the percentage almost doubling from 34 percent for those in the United States for 10 years or less to 67 percent for those here for more than 10 years. The home ownership rate for U.S. citizens by birth is 68 percent.
- Syrian immigrants become naturalized U.S. citizens at high rates. Among those who have been here for more than 20 years, 91 percent have become U.S. citizens. This is significantly higher than the 71 percent rate for immigrants overall.
The 90,000 Syrian immigrants who were in the United States before the recent arrival of refugees have been thriving and are therefore well-positioned to help their compatriots when they arrive. Policymakers should take into account the fact that the United States already has a robust Syrian community that is making contributions and may be well-placed to facilitate the integration of new Syrian refugees.
Syrian immigrants in the United States
Syrian immigrants earn good wages
The median annual wage for Syrian immigrants in the United States is $52,000, which is higher than the wages for immigrants overall and the wages for U.S.-born workers. Immigrants make $36,000, compared with U.S.-born workers, who make $45,000. This is good news for Syrian immigrants, and it makes them an even stronger receiving community for refugee arrivals.
Also notable is the fact that wages for immigrants in general increase over time spent in the United States, as they gain work experience, improve their English, and in other ways learn to navigate the American workplace or increase their skill level or level of educational attainment.
This increase is particularly prominent for Syrian immigrants. Wages in the United States are substantially different for Syrian men and women, so this brief looks at the differences disaggregated by gender.
Syrian immigrant men who have been here for 10 years or less have a median wage of $43,000, while those who have been here longer have a median wage of $65,000. By comparison, for immigrant men overall, recent arrivals have a median wage of $30,000, and those who have been here longer have a median wage of $41,000.
And while Syrian immigrant women who have recently arrived in the United States do considerably less well than men—in large measure due to the difference in educational attainment, as described below—Syrian women have the same median income as other immigrant women who are recent arrivals—$27,000. After having been here for 10 years, however, Syrian women have a median wage of $42,000, while immigrant women overall have a median wage of $36,000.
Educational attainment of Syrian immigrants
The comparatively high wages of Syrian immigrants are closely connected with high levels of educational attainment.
A very high 38 percent of Syrian immigrants have a four-year college degree or higher, compared with 28 percent of immigrants in general and 29 percent of U.S. citizens by birth—in all cases, for people ages 25 and older.
What stands out, however, is the very high share of Syrian men with an advanced degree. (see Table 1) Fully 27 percent of Syrian immigrant men have a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree.
On the other hand, Syrians who do not have a four-year degree broadly resemble other immigrants. Twenty-five percent of Syrians did not graduate high school; this is more similar to the rate for immigrants overall, at 31 percent, than to the rate for U.S.-born people, at 10 percent. For 19 percent of Syrian immigrants, the highest level of degree is high school—more similar to immigrants overall, at 22 percent, than to U.S.-born individuals, at 29 percent.
While the share of Syrian immigrant women with an advanced degree is somewhat lower than the share of immigrants and U.S.-born women, it is worth noting that the share of Syrian immigrant women whose highest level of educational attainment is a four-year college degree is slightly higher than for other groups: 21 percent for Syrian immigrant women; 17 percent for immigrant women overall; and 19 percent for U.S.-born women. (Note: Differences of 1 or 2 percentage points may lack statistical significance.)
While a comparable share of new refugees may or may not reach these same levels of educational attainment, it can only be helpful to them that other Syrians have done well and can serve as role models or help new arrivals navigate the American system.
Syrian women’s labor force participation grows over time
Not only do Syrian women’s wages increase over time spent in the United States, but their labor force participation increases as well.
In general, the labor force participation rates for immigrant women increase over time in the United States as women become accustomed to U.S. norms—and perhaps also as their children get older, allowing them to enter the workforce. As a point of comparison, the labor force participation rate for U.S.-born women is 73 percent.
For immigrant women, the labor force participation rate is 59 percent for recent arrivals. For those who have been here longer, the rate rises to 70 percent, near the level of U.S.-born women.
Syrian women follow the same upward trend but start and end at lower levels of labor force participation. Among Syrian immigrant women, 40 percent of recent arrivals are in the labor force; for longer-established Syrian immigrant women, the rate increases to 51 percent. These lower rates of labor force participation may be related in part to cultural factors. They may also be related to having less economic pressure to work due to the comparatively high earnings of Syrian immigrant men.
Syrian immigrants are highly entrepreneurial
Immigrants are, on average, more likely to be business owners than the rest of the U.S. population. A report by the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Americas Society/Council of the Americas found, for example, that immigrants make up 13 percent of the population, 16 percent of the labor force, and 18 percent of business owners.9
Among those in the labor force, 4 percent of immigrants are business owners, compared to 3 percent of U.S.-born people.10 But the rate of business ownership among Syrian immigrants stands out dramatically. Fully 11 percent of Syrian immigrants in the labor force are business owners—more than double the rate of immigrants overall and more than triple the rate of U.S. citizens by birth.
Syrian immigrants also generate higher earnings from their businesses than do other business owners. Syrian business owners have average earnings of $72,000, compared with $51,000 for U.S.-born business owners and $40,000 for other immigrants.
Syrians contribute to the economy’s growth by starting a variety of business types. They are particularly likely to have businesses in medical offices, retail stores, food services, and automobile dealerships.
Syrian-owned businesses could provide job opportunities for new refugees and expand access to valuable networks, as well as provide information about new job openings.
Syrian immigrants learn to speak English
Fluency in English is a valued skill in the workplace and is important for upward social and economic mobility in general. Higher-paying positions often require a high level of English proficiency compared with jobs that offer lower wages, and social integration is substantially facilitated when immigrants learn the English language.
It is therefore noteworthy that immigrants in general, and Syrian immigrants in particular, increase their English language ability over time. The fact that Syrian immigrants have done very well in learning English should help and encourage Syrian refugees to do the same.
Among immigrants overall, the share that speak English “very well” or speak only English at home increases from 43 percent to 52 percent when they have lived in the United States for more than a decade. For Syrians, this number starts slightly lower and ends higher: It increases from 39 percent for recent arrivals to 57 percent for more established immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than 10 years.
Once Syrian immigrants have been in the United States for more 10 years, the number who speak only English increases nearly fivefold, from 2 percent to 10 percent.
Syrian immigrants become homeowners
Home ownership is the norm across most of the United States, and it is an important economic goal for many immigrants. Overall, 68 percent of U.S.-born individuals live in homes that they own.
Immigrants who are recent arrivals have, not surprisingly, comparatively low levels of home ownership. Among those who have been here for 10 years or less, 34 percent of immigrants overall and 34 percent of Syrian immigrants own their own home.
This rate increases substantially for more established immigrants. Among immigrants who have been here for more than 10 years, the overall rate of home ownership is 62 percent; among Syrian immigrants, it is 67 percent.11
As with education, while refugees arriving now may or may not match these impressive levels of home ownership compared with the Syrian immigrants who came before them, having people who speak their language and who could help explain the process of purchasing a home may help guide refugees toward home ownership.
Syrian immigrants naturalize as U.S. citizens
Citizenship is a strong marker of integration in the United States: To become a citizen, immigrants must decide to apply; generally, pay a fee; pass English and civics tests; complete an interview; and ultimately, swear allegiance to the United States.12
Forty-two percent of immigrants who have been in the United States for 11 to 20 years have become U.S. citizens, as have 71 percent of those who have been here for 21 years or more.
Among Syrian immigrants, these numbers are even higher: 77 percent of those here for 11 to 20 years, and 91 percent of those here for 21 years or more, have become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Where Syrian immigrants live
Approximately 90,000 Syrian immigrants reside in the United States. Similar to other immigrant groups, Syrian immigrants live throughout the country but are generally clustered in a handful of communities.
The largest numbers of Syrian immigrants are in the Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago metropolitan areas.
Detroit also has a robust Syrian immigrant community. In fact, it has the fourth-largest group of Syrian immigrants in the country. For every 10,000 people, Detroit has 8 Syrian immigrants. This is higher than in Chicago—6—or New York—5—though not as high as Los Angeles’ 11.
Syrian immigrants may be more prominent in Detroit because there are fewer immigrants overall. The Syrian share of the immigrant population in metropolitan Detroit is 92 per every 10,000 immigrants, nearly triple the level of Chicago—35—and Los Angeles—33—and well above New York’s 18.
The metropolitan area that is most striking in this regard may be Allentown, Pennsylvania. In metropolitan Allentown, there are 308 Syrians per every 10,000 immigrants, more than three times the level of metropolitan Detroit and nearly 10 times the rate of any other metropolitan area. And per every 10,000 people, Allentown has 25 Syrian immigrants, more than double the share of the next closest metropolitan area, Los Angeles.
Syrian refugees’ integration
At the local level, communities play a key role in ensuring and easing the integration of newly resettled refugees. The way communities treat refugees plays an important role in how well refugees integrate, find their place in society, and learn English. Syrian refugees have been resettled across many states: Some have been resettled in cities—such as Chicago and Dallas—that have existing Syrian communities, while others have been resettled in cities such as Troy, Michigan, and Glendale, Arizona, with small Syrian immigrant populations.13 Refugee resettlement agencies choose the locations for new refugees by taking a range of factors into account, from housing costs and job opportunities to the location of existing relatives.14
A large portion—73 percent—of those resettled are women and children, and children under age 14 make up nearly half of the total resettled.15 A prior report from the Center for American Progress and the Fiscal Policy Institute found that refugees who arrived as children had high school graduation rates similar to those of their U.S.-born peers. And when compared across several refugee groups, individuals who entered the United States as children were more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than those who came as adults.16 Ultimately, the communities receiving the new refugees and their families have an opportunity to take part in supporting them to help them become contributing members of society.
There are numerous examples of U.S. communities welcoming Syrian families. In Houston, for example, the Syrian American Club—a nonprofit group consisting of doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, and others—organizes cultural gatherings, offers Arabic language classes for children, and raises funds for scholarships.17 This type of committee provides essential support for new refugees, such as helping them complete job applications, driving them to job interviews, and babysitting their children. In Connecticut, community groups have come together under a program by Integrated Refugee & Immigration Services that allows private volunteers to sign up to help refugees. The program has resettled 28 Syrian families in the state.18
However, Syrian refugees have not always been welcomed in their new country. Some states, such as Texas and Indiana, have attempted to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their communities; to date, these efforts have been thwarted in the lower and higher courts.19 For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the decision of a lower court that stopped Indiana from withholding critically needed resettlement dollars, an action that would have effectively prevented the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state.20 The panel unanimously described the state’s policy as unlawful discrimination.
Finally, while this issue brief focuses on the receiving community for Syrian refugees—the United States’ pre-existing Syrian immigrant population—Syrian refugees are being resettled throughout the country. More than half of all Syrian refugees—54 percent—are in seven states: California; Michigan; Texas; Arizona; Pennsylvania; Illinois; and Florida.
Across a wide array of measures, Syrian immigrants are doing exceptionally well in the United States, and they do even better once they have had time to adjust to American society, finish their education, and find their place in the labor market.
Having a receiving community of the same background as an incoming refugee group is not necessary for successful integration. When Hmong refugees were first settled in the United States, for instance, they rarely found previously existing Hmong communities, and the same has been true for many other refugee groups. But there is little doubt that having a group from the same country already successfully living and working in the United States can help a refugee group find its way. Studies showed that Cuban refugees in Miami saw better returns for the qualifications they brought from Cuba in an economy supported by Cuban businesses and entrepreneurs.21 And the 90,000 Syrian immigrants who have made their home in the United States are, on the whole, doing quite well here. That’s good for them and good for the communities that they live in, and it helps provide a well-established receiving community for future refugees from Syria.
David Dyssegaard Kallick is senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute, where he directs the Immigration Research Initiative, and he is visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for City and Regional Planning. Cyierra Roldan is an immigration policy analyst at the Fiscal Policy Institute. Silva Mathema is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Immigration team at the Center for American Progress.