Skip to main content
ABC News
How Refugees Make It In America

One of the first things college English majors learn is how to riff (semi-coherently) on the concept of “The Other.” It’s a tidily obfuscating phrase describing someone who doesn’t quite fit into the accepted social schema of things, and if you’ve been paying any kind of attention to the last week of news, you already know something about the fear and anxiety “The Other” can strike in the hearts of men. Particularly, it seems, men running for elected office.

The topic of the 10,000 Syrian refugees that President Obama promised to resettle in the U.S. has moved front and center in the presidential campaign, in particular the Republican primary. “The Statue of Liberty says bring us your tired and your weary; it didn’t say bring us your terrorists and let them come in here and bomb neighborhoods, cafes and concert halls,” Mike Huckabee said. Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to a rabid dog “running around your neighborhood.” More than half the nation’s governors — almost all Republicans — have announced that they won’t accept additional refugees, and Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have proffered that Christians from the war-torn country should be given favorable preference for refugee status over their Muslim counterparts. The House passed a bill, supported by 47 Democrats, that would require more stringent screening for refugees, who are already required to go through a process that can take years.

The worry underlying this frenzy of statements and legislative actions is, of course, that refugees who enter the country could be Islamic State sleeper cells; one of the Paris attackers was carrying a Syrian passport — likely stolen or fake — giving shape to scenarios by which a terrorist might inflict his harm in this increasingly borderless-seeming conflict. There’s also anxiety that those who are not incorporated into American culture will seek to upend it by violent means. It’s a fear that’s coursed through America’s veins since 9/11, but the attacks in Paris brought the gore to the surface again, like a maliciously precise scalpel dragging across an old scar. That some of the attackers were French nationals who had grown so disillusioned with their home country inspired a helpless kind of dread: What can we know about the minds of those we crowd onto trains with daily, stroll by on the street? Politicians have pointed to a recent poll from Bloomberg that found that 53 percent of Americans don’t want to continue Syrian refugee resettlement, with 11 percent of respondents saying that they favored a program to resettle only Christians.

Why are Christian refugees more palatable? There’s a perception, at least in recent years, that most perpetrators of violent acts are Muslim; the read-between-the-lines notion is that Syrian Christians would “get our values” more than Syrian Muslims would, that they would assimilate — an unfashionable word that’s getting a lot of play lately. The more they fall in with our way of life and the quicker they do it, the less likely they will be to become terrorists.

Belonging is a notoriously slippery concept, though, as any ballet dancing coal miner’s son would tell you. But is there any way to begin to quantify it? Are there metrics that can help one plausibly game out which refugees will adapt to life in America best? And do these same metrics have any predictive value in determining who will or will not become a terrorist?

Well, kinda, yes. But also no. A squinting man once said something about known unknowns — that pretty much sums it all up: Certain characteristics of incoming refugees can hint at how they’ll fare in the U.S., but these don’t have much to do with who’s most likely to become a home-grown terrorist.

Education and income level are among the top indicators of how well a refugee will do in the U.S. “Educational attainment is the most important one, probably,” said Randy Capps, the lead author of a Migration Policy Institute study on refugee integration, which looked at the 10 largest diaspora groups1 arriving in the U.S. from 2000 to 2013. “Generally, people who come to the U.S. with low education levels are going to be very disadvantaged.”

Refugees from Russia, Iran and Ukraine are the best-educated, according to the MPI’s analysis of census data from 2009 to 2011. More than 60 percent of Russian refugees had bachelor’s degrees. By comparison, only about 30 percent of U.S.-born adults did. While there are not yet statistics on the group of about 2,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in the U.S. in the past several years, Capps said the Syrian population already in the U.S. falls into the well-educated category. Based on 2014 data that MPI shared, 39 percent of Syrian immigrant adults living stateside had a college degree, compared with 29 percent of all immigrant adults. Of those Syrians with a four-year degree, 47 percent have a graduate or professional degree.

MPI data on literacy — a proxy for educational attainment — of refugees arriving from 2004 to 2013 showed that 88 percent of Iranian refugees were literate in Farsi and 75 percent of Iraqi refugees were literate in Arabic. Capps said he expects that the incoming Syrian refugees would fall somewhere in this range. By comparison, literacy rates for refugees from Somalia were only 25 percent, Bhutanese 38 percent, Burmese 51 percent and Afghans 55 percent.

Capps said income and employment are other gauges of integration to watch. Across the board, refugees in the U.S. are poorer than other immigrants: From 2009 to 2011, their median household income was $42,000 — $3,000 less than what other foreign-born populations were living on and $8,000 less than the median income for those born in the U.S., according to the MPI report. Some do worse than others; 79 percent of Somali refugees lived in low-income households, as did 73 percent of Iraqis despite their relatively high literacy level. But gradually, the MPI report found, refugees’ income levels and rates of public benefit use “approach parity” with those who are U.S. born. “Over time,” Capps said, “people who are better-educated are going to get better jobs.” Middle Eastern refugees roundly find themselves in these ranks.

Even if Syrians can find only low-skills jobs, Capps said, they’re likely to integrate more quickly in the U.S. than in Europe. “Gainful employment, even if it’s just at a survival level, is going to be better than what a lot of Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees have faced in Europe,” he said. “They will be more incorporated in the economy; they will have more hope for the future and be integrating faster.

U.S. refugee resettlement places a particular focus on economic integration: Even before the 1996 welfare reform law was passed, some refugees to the U.S. saw their cash benefits connected to employment status. “It’s not just people arrive and then we provide the health care, we provide the housing, we provide income and food but they don’t have anything to do, they don’t have any attachment to the society,” Capps said. “We attach people to the labor force and therefore to the general society much more quickly.”

So are there any refugees who have become terrorists since finding a home in the U.S.? Yes — three.

That’s out of the 784,000 refugees who have been resettled in the U.S. since 9/11. Kathleen Newland, also of the MPI, pointed this out earlier in the fall, adding that it was “worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.” History doesn’t seem to bear out that refugees are more likely to be disaffected enough by life in the U.S. to lash out through terrorism.

But it’s undeniable that the number of Westerners attempting to join Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has skyrocketed (there’s no data available on whether any of these were refugees). According to Courtney Schuster, co-author of a New America Foundation report, “ISIS in the West,” 83 Americans from 21 different states have attempted to join the group. George Washington University’s Program on Extremism reported that a majority had tried to do so in 2015 alone.

The profile of a Western Islamic State fighter doesn’t have much to do with income, educational level, or English language proficiency, though. Around 40 percent of those trying to leave the U.S. to join Islamic State had converted to Islam, a disproportionate number given that only 23 percent of American Muslims are converts, Seamus Hughes, deputy director of GW’s Program on Extremism, noted in an e-mail. It’s reasonable to assume that included in this number are those who were — with all the attending Springsteen-ian undertones — born in the USA.

The New America report showed that age, online activity and family ties to jihadist organizations are the commonalities that bind together the Westerners who have looked to join Islamic State. In the European cases, recruiting was more likely to center on family connections; Schuster said 40 percent of U.K. fighters had familial ties to jihadist organizations. In the U.S., though, the great radicalizer has been the Internet: Only 20 percent of the 83 recruits had family ties to Islamic State, but a whopping 90 percent had active social-media interactions with extremists.

While refugee integration experts can find economic, linguistic and educational trends that will predict how well groups might fit into American life, those working to sort out the profile of a Western Islamic State fighter cannot. How materially comfortable one is doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. There’s no data yet, but many Islamic State sympathizers appear to be solidly middle class. In the American context, Hughes said, it’s fair to say that income and education level are not determining factors for who is interested in joining the group. In other words, by all the indicators we have, nothing says refugees are any more likely to be radicalized.

The bill passed last week by the House would require the director of national intelligence, the head of the FBI, and the homeland security secretary to certify that each refugee applicant from Iraq and Syria poses no threat to the United States — actuaries tasked with predicting extremism. In literature, The Other, no matter how hard she tries, never quite makes it into the fold. Othello cracks up, Hester Prynne must live on the outskirts of town and wear an unflattering broach, and, oh man, the GOP presidential candidates would have a field day with the stuff that unfolds in “Season of Migration to the North” — not just the violent sex bits either.2 That’s not how real life works most of the time, though. Eventually The Other starts wearing baseball hats, pierces her ears at Claire’s and realizes that Thanksgiving is a damn good holiday invention. He fits into our 300 million-person fold as well as anyone else.

But fear, any ghoulish insurance mathematician would tell you, comes when the surety of numbers fails. Terrorism — indicators and screenings aside — is what happens when the known unknowns reveal themselves.


  1. Syrians were not among the top 10.

  2. Google the book title plus “stabbing” and you’ll get the idea.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.