Integrating the “Other”: Immigrant Return on Investment (IROI)

By: Jack Xu

By: Eliana Trinaistic – Social Impact Manager

As a non-profit that prides itself on being a social enterprise, MCIS believes that the humanitarian cause that inspired the organization to make the challenging but rewarding decision to sponsor a Syrian refugee family in 2017 was also economically justified, based on the lived experience of how refugees and immigrants have contributed to MCIS’s growth.

Over the years, MCIS’s growth from a staff of 3 in 1993 to over 60 full time employees in 2018 was supported by hiring policies that created opportunities for immigrants, newcomers and refugees. Today, 85% of MCIS staff  identify themselves as 1st generation immigrants  and 95% of our language professionals as well as our students are either immigrants or have parents born outside Canada. At the moment, close to 5000 individuals directly associated with MCIS are able to find lucrative opportunities in the language industry while sustaining themselves and their families.  But the organization also found that creating immigrant focused jobs and fostering a diverse organizational culture have additional positive outcomes, such as retention and network creation, that in turn contribute to stability and mature development.

From MCIS’s perspective, the humanitarian dimension of refugee sponsorship was an imperative. Canada’s legacy of compassionate inclusiveness of world values and perspectives is built on humanitarian attitudes.  Research also shows that diversity creates an auspicious landscape for the innovation that the future of our work depends on.  Even from a purely demographic perspective, given its size proportionate to its current population, Canada needs people. People must come from somewhere. People arriving from other places are called immigrants and refugees.

However, MCIS’s argument here was also that, in addition to the humanitarian dimension, an investment into welcoming refugees to Canada yields substantial economic dividends for generations to come.  A recently published multiyear study conducted by the Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities  revealed that, although refugees arrive with lower levels of education and language that initially makes them lag behind the natives (increased precarious employment and use of welfare, lower earnings), over time the outcomes improve significantly: “after 6 years in the country, these refugees worked at higher rates than natives although they never attained the earning levels of U.S.-born respondents. We estimate that refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their first 20 years.” A couple of years ago another comprehensive European study conducted by the Open Political Economy Network (OPEN) has shown that “investing one euro in welcoming refugees yields nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years.” (p.3)  In addition, refugees are not only “economically beneficial” to their host country in the long term, but they can create savings in terms of growing social capital: “It costs only £25,000 ($35,750) to train a refugee doctor to practise in the UK, compared with over £250,000 ($357,500) for a new British one.”(p. 9)

In fact, all research exploring refugees’ work published in the past decade uniformly states that all refugees, asylum seekers in particular, are exceptionally employable. They do not resist work.  But the immigration policies do. To change the current landscape, Canada needs more ambitious strategies, such as incentives for employer led and work facilitated language acquisition, including grassroots organizations, and rapid access (work permits, self employment and recognition of  foreign professional credentials).

While reflecting on this issue, I also came to realize that the perception about refugees mirrors our fears and insecurities around the disruptive nature of our economy.  On the one hand, refugees and asylum seekers, besides being seen as “others”, are also economy disruptors, disrupted by their own socio-political destiny.  On the other, they are resilient, committed and single-minded about their goals, in ways the native population may be lacking.  There is some truth in the fact that a perceived lack of safety may occasionally increase adaptability and resilience but this applies only to some human lives, and only temporarily.  For that reason, the time – limited investment in support (settlement) services is important as much as the discipline to compare the dollar figure of a multi-year contribution to the culture and economy. With that we might also find rather indisputable evidence that the “immigrant” ROI greatly surpasses the initial investment.

I wish that our immigration policy makers take better advantage of the extensive data we collect already, so our longitudinal evidence will be transparent and solid.

And I wish that a cost benefit analysis will replace the emotional lens that swings the pendulum of political will from left to the right and back, every once in awhile. An economic lens might crate new measures too making it more palatable for those deciding on budgets (an Immigrant Return on Investment/ IROI).

And, finally, I wish all of us could pause, stay centered to make a conscious and intentional effort to work from our common ground.  Solutions are available but not easily visible unless we manage to integrate what we might even fundamentally disagree with: the disruptor, the “Other”.