In 2006, when I became a judge in Burundi’s justice department, I had no idea that within a few years, I’d be tortured by the government, left for dead and then forced to flee to the United States.
Somehow my family made it out alive, and I’m incredibly grateful that the U.S. welcomed us in our moment of desperation. We don’t take our refuge in this great country, particularly in Texas, for granted. That’s why it’s been hard for me to see the U.S. close its doors to so many other refugees who have been forced to flee their countries.
Since 2016, the Trump administration reduced the refugee cap from 85,000 to just 30,000, the lowest level in nearly 40 years. Even more heartbreaking, he now plans to cut that number to just 18,000 next year. These numbers are already bearing out across Texas. San Antonio, for instance, resettled over 1,000 refugees in 2014, but fewer than 400 last year.
These policies don’t represent the America I know. Historically, the U.S. has led the world in refugee resettlement, and we have decades of data to show how much refugees benefit our communities. They have a high employment rate of 94 percent, and in 2017, they earned $86.2 billion and paid $23.3 billion in taxes, according to New American Economy.
They’re also more likely to be entrepreneurs – 13 percent own their own businesses compared to 9 percent of native-born Americans. As a refugee program assistant at Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT) in Austin, I see how hard they work to give back to the country that welcomed them. In Texas alone, refugees hold more than $4.6 billion in spending power, and we’re one of the top states for refugee-generated tax revenue.
When my wife, and two kids, ages 5 and 3, arrived here, we had nothing. For the first few months, the Caritas of Austin refugee resettlement program helped us with rent and groceries. But we were eager to become self-sufficient.
My law degree from Burundi didn’t transfer, so I got a job in a hotel in downtown Austin. It was humbling, because I used to stay at this same hotel chain when I traveled for my job in Kenya or overseas. I went back to school to become a nurse’s assistant. I worked in nursing homes for two years, while taking a second job with the Austin Independent School District as a refugee parent support coordinator. In 2016, I was hired full time at iACT as a refugee program assistant.
Although I’m not practicing law here, I’m grateful to live in a place where I’m free to speak my mind without retaliation from the government. Back in Burundi, my problems began when I tried to stop the government from convicting a political opponent. After the ruling, I was kidnapped and tortured. They left me to die in the woods, but I escaped and went into hiding.
My family fled to Rwanda, but it was harder for me to leave because my photo was at every border crossing and airport. Finally, a friend helped me get to Rwanda to reunite with my family. In 2012, after four years in Rwanda, we were accepted into the U.S. as refugees.
Last year, my family and I became American citizens. The day was exciting and emotional, and we threw a party to celebrate. The first time I flew after that, I beamed with pride when I pulled out my U.S. passport and said “I am an American.”
Today, however, I worry that I could lose my job now that the White House has ordered further reductions to the refugee resettlement program. This saddens me not only because I love my job, but because I know we have the resources to help. This country was built on immigrants, and the decline in admissions comes at a time when the number of refugees worldwide has reached the highest level since the 1940s.
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There are wars all over the world, and thousands of innocent people may die if countries like the U.S. don’t accept them. I am especially troubled to see the current wave of Africans from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who have been crossing our Southern border and traveling to San Antonio, seeking refuge. They are fleeing war crimes; some have been traveling for years to reach North America. They have literally sacrificed everything but their lives. They deserve our assistance.
I hope to return to school soon to become an immigration lawyer so I can continue to help immigrants in America. Back in my country, if someone was strong, we’d call him a Texan. Now that I live here, I understand why. Texans live boldly and don’t back down in the face of adversity. We’re strong, but right now, we need to be even stronger for our country. We need to stand up for those who are facing desperation and support policymakers who will do the same. It’s the Texan way.