Editor’s Note: Zak Sayid is co-owner of The Horn Coffee in Nashville and a member of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Watching the migrant caravan edge north through Mexico, I’m reminded of my own family’s long, dangerous journey to America in the 1990s. These days, I’m a proud US citizen and a successful business owner — but I’m only here because the United States helped my family escape persecution.
We’re from Somalia, where my mother was a bank clerk and my father was a successful food-industry entrepreneur. But when civil war broke out in 1991, my father bundled my pregnant mother and my older brother into a car and fled across the border into Kenya. I was born soon after, and spent the first four years of my life in a Kenyan refugee camp before American Catholic missionaries helped us resettle in Tennessee.
My earliest memories are of growing up in Nashville, and I’ve always felt every bit as American as any of my native-born neighbors. That’s why President Trump’s efforts to close our doors to refugees and asylum seekers is so upsetting. The White House is cutting the refugees we admit to just 30,000 people a year — a third lower than current levels, and a dramatic decline from President Obama’s target of 110,000 in 2017. The Trump administration is also implementing new policies that will make it harder for Central Americans to obtain asylum at our country’s southern border.
As someone whose family once benefited from America’s generosity, I believe that the Trump administration should walk back those policies. Our country must stay true to its core values, and that means reinstating Obama-era refugee quotas, and working to make it easier, not harder, for refugees to gain the help and protection they need.
Besides helping people fleeing persecution, war and gang violence, doing so would also be good for our nation’s economic wellbeing. Everywhere refugees go, they work hard, pay taxes and start businesses, supporting local economies and creating countless jobs for native-born Americans. According to New American Economy, 13% of refugees start their own businesses, compared to just 9% of the US-born population; in total, our country now has more than 180,000 refugee entrepreneurs, running businesses that bring in $4.6 billion a year.
Those businesses mean jobs for Americans: Nationwide, immigrants found a quarter of new businesses. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that communities thrive when refugees arrive. In Utica, New York, where 15,000 refugees have settled in recent years, a survey of 300 local residents conducted by Zogby Analytics found that almost three quarters believed immigrants’ presence had been a boon for the economy. And research shows that the 16,500 or so refugees living in Columbus, Ohio, have created almost 21,300 jobs, and contribute $1.6 billion to the local economy.
That matches my own family’s experience. When we came to America, my father worked 60-hour weeks, putting in back-to-back shifts at multiple factories to put food on the table. He worked so hard that at one point, he collapsed from exhaustion, and we had to stage a family intervention to ask him to give up at least one of his jobs. Even so, he was soon back at work, starting a business selling Somali pastries to local restaurants.
His example motivated me to excel. After interning with Boeing in Seattle, I’m now back in Nashville, where my older brother and I run a small cafe called The Horn Coffee. We’re selling the same Somali pastries that my father used to sell to local restaurants, but we’re our own bosses.
As we grow, we hope to hire American workers, but for now the whole family pitches in: My mom and my sisters cook pastries, and my father works the register every morning. (We still haven’t been able to persuade him to retire.)
To us, the Horn is more than just a neighborhood cafe: It’s our little piece of the American dream, and a symbol of how, as a family, we’ve integrated into our community. We’re still Somali, of course, but we’re also proudly American, and we’re doing our bit to support the local economy as we build a life for ourselves here in Tennessee.
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That’s good for us, and good for our community. According to NAE, there are almost 8,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in Nashville; across Tennessee, immigrant-owned businesses like The Horn employ more than 57,000 people, and generate $472.5 million in business income.
Nationwide, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, refugees boost government revenue by $63 billion more than they cost the country.
That’s a reminder of how much our country stands to lose if we slam the door on the world’s refugees. President Trump should give vulnerable and suffering people a fair chance to win asylum in America — not just because it’s the ethical thing to do, but because doing so will create jobs and spur economic growth for all Americans.