Caveat: While this paper finds that refugees show significantly better labor market outcomes than economic migrants, it’s worth noting that this study covers an older cohort of refugee arrivals, when refugee cash and medical assistance were available for up to 36 months (up until 1991), and when the U.S. economy was booming. Things have changed quite a bit since then. For example, the Migration Policy Institute recently found that the median income of refugees who came to the U.S. from 1980-90 was $31,000 higher than the median income of those who arrived during 2006-11. On the plus side, the MPI reports finds that refugees are more likely to be employed than the U.S.-born population, which is quite noteworthy, in light of the Great Recession of 2009. Moreover, local studies have shown how refugees start businesses at a quicker pace than the U.S.born, and how refugees begin contributing to the U.S. society at a rather breath-taking pace. Only 8 percent of refugee households are still receiving public assistance within two years of coming to the U.S., a level of self-sufficiency that beats national norms.
I find that in 1980 refugee immigrants in this cohort earned 6 percent less and worked 14 percent fewer hours than economic immigrants. Both had about the same level of English skills. The two immigrant groups had made substantial gains by 1990; however, refugees had made greater gains. In fact, the labor market outcomes of refugee immigrants surpassed those of economic immigrants. In 1990, refugees from the 1975-1980 arrival cohort earned 20 percent more, worked 4 percent more hours, and improved their English skills by 11 percent relative to economic immigrants. The higher rates of human capital accumulation for refugee immigrants contribute to these findings.
Kalena Cortes, Are Refugees Different from Economic Immigrants? Some Empirical Evidence on the Heterogeneity of Immigrant Groups in the United States . In: IZA Discussion Paper No. 1063, 2004.