A City of Refugees

Miami is a city built on the foundation of immigrants, refugees, and finding your home in a strange place.

Last year I hosted a My Miami Story event sponsored by the Miami Foundation. It encourages you to bring people together for a conversation on what Miami means to them. What I was struck by in the intro to the conversation is how each person or family was fleeing something when they came here. Whether that be political oppression, economic immobility, or religious persecution in Cuba, Jamaica, India, Venezuela, or Chile. Although it may be easy to forget, Miami would not be what it was if not for these migrations and to say “no more” now is simply hypocrisy.

Miami’s immigrant community makes up the largest share per city population in the US, right before cities such as San Jose, New York City, and Houston. About 40% of Miami residents are foreign born, and without this influx, we would not be the Miami we are today. Many of those fleeing their home countries, form businesses, purchase goods, work jobs, and find homes on arrival. Multiple studies have pointed out that while there may be an initial cost to accepting refugees, it is usually made up very quickly in tax benefits and economic contributions. In fact, immigrants are twice as likely to form a new business than an American born individual. In Miami, the rapid population increase of immigrants in the mid 20th century created an economic boom here for decades. Of course, this conversation is incomplete without mentioning the astronomically important role that Cuban Refugees played in this growth (See related post here: The Magic of Wet Foot, Dry Foot).

A worry that many have is that immigrants will come and commit crimes, however, studies show that immigrants are 1/5-1/2 as likely to as US citizens. In 1975, during the Vietnam War, only about 33% of the US approved of allowing Vietnamese refugees to enter the US. Today, the polling for allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees in floats between 33-57%. In addition, today’s vetting of refugees is a much more grueling process and takes usually 2 years. Today, the US has about 2 million productive and contributing Vietnamese-Americans living all over the country, that we would not if we had said “no more” in 1975.

Artists rendition of immigrants arriving in New York City in the 1800s

When refugees arrive in the US, most understand that they may never see their homes again. They leave behind their personal possessions, their extended families, their careers, and their way of life in order to give their families a chance. In fact, they are not unlike the ferries of immigrants at the turn of the century, crowding on boat decks to get a look at the Statue of Liberty as she greets them with her famous inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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