America’s Newest Exploitation Target: Syrian Refugees

Many of us have heard the common story of a Syrian refugee who is highly skilled but working a low paying job after resettling in the United States. What many of us don’t understand is why exactly that trend exists and how governments and citizens, as people with democratic power, can help create a better environment for these displaced refugees.

Some people believe that Syrian refugees are less educated than the average immigrant or American and, therefore, hold lower-skilled jobs. In reality however, Syrian immigrants are about 10 percent more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than both foreign born populations and American born populations (Zong). What is even more shocking is that Syrian immigrants in the U.S. work jobs aligned with their educational accomplishments, rather than low-skilled jobs as one might expect. Forty-nine percent of Syrian immigrants have jobs within the management, business, science and arts occupations, sectors that require high levels of education and are not generally associated with low wages (Zong). If Syrians are both more educated and in respectable jobs, how then does the American government explain why Syrian immigrant families are 10 percent more likely than U.S-born families to be below the federal poverty line?

In America, immigrant populations are known to be paid less than native-born Americans (Butcher). However, this reality is exacerbated for refugees. Research in The Journal of Refugee Studies finds that refugees are paid about $6 less per hour than non-refugee immigrants (Connor). Additionally, the study shows that their level of education, varying proficiency in the English language and resources available in their neighborhoods cannot explain the disparity in earnings. While there are many factors that work together to explain this continued inequality, labor exploitation is deeply rooted in America and can be looked to as a driving force. America has often left immigrants without proper legal protections, putting them at high-risk for exploitation. A more recent example of this abuse is the Bracero Program, a program designed by the American government with the intent of closing the gap between American demand for and supply of labor by bringing in Mexican laborers. Unfortunately, immigrants who came over under this program were left without promised fair wages and labor protection. We can also look to Vietnamese immigrants who are idealized as “a group whose cultural orientations have enabled them to overcome disadvantages and achieve economic success”; however, it is often forgotten that they too were the victims of discrimination “characterized by unstable, minimum-wage employment, [and] welfare dependency” (Gold).

Similarly, the desperate situation of Syrian refugees, resulting in part from merely 90 days of guaranteed resettlement aid, makes them highly vulnerable to labor exploitation and, consequently, makes them welfare dependent (“Learn About the Refugee Application Process”). Employers may be more inclined to offer lower wages because they are aware of refugees’ eagerness to find a job and the lack of labor protection laws for refugees. In order to minimize the amount of money the government has to spend on welfare dependent and impoverished Syrian refugees, the root of the problem, labor exploitation, must be addressed.

While it is intuitive that protective policies need to be put into place to prevent the exploitation of refugees, four factors must be accounted for to ensure that these policies are most effective:

  1. Governments must bring refugees to the table when developing policies. As Joe Soss, the Cowles Chair for the Study of Public Service at the University of Minnesota, explains, collective decision-making allows marginalized groups to feel more empowered and ultimately benefit more from welfare systems. How can we make decisions about the needs of a group without ever asking them what their needs are?
  2. The biases policy makers, even those who mean well, may have against disadvantaged groups must be accounted for when considering implementation of policies. Dara Strolovitch, a professor at Princeton University, finds that organizations are “substantially less active when it comes to issues affecting disadvantaged subgroups than they are when it comes to issues affecting more advantaged subgroups”. As such, it is important that the impact of policies on refugees is fully analyzed and not minimized.
  3. Policies that protect the labor of refugees might discourage employers from hiring. Therefore, additional policies should incentivize employers to hire refugees, perhaps through temporary government subsidies.
  4. Some employers question the legitimacy of Syrian degrees, arguing that it is much easier to acquire a degree in Syria than in America. By creating a system for refugees to receive American certification for their skills, refugees’ education can be taken more seriously in the hiring process.

It is easy to say that policies should be created, but it much more difficult to persuade governments to act.

Only through political pressure can citizens activate their democratic rights.

Today, people have turned to protests to demonstrate their disapproval of policies. These protests have been effective in bringing down the so-called “Muslim Ban,” promoting LGBTQ rights, and sparking discourse on police brutality. As Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver put it, “protest is democracy at work.”

Because protests give “a microphone to the voiceless,” we must speak for refugees who are not victims of their unfortunate levels of education, but rather victims of brutal American capitalism.

Feedback welcome at


Zong, Jie. “Profile of Syrian Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute, 25 Jan. 2016. Web. 13 Apr. 2017. states.

Butcher, Kristin F., and John Dinardo. “The Immigrant and Native-Born Wage Distributions: Evidence from United States Censuses.” ILR Review 56.1 (2016): 97–121. SAGE. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Connor, Phillip. “Explaining the Refugee Gap: Economic Outcomes of Refugees versus Other Immigrants.”; Journal of Refugee Studies. Oxford University Press, 28 Aug. 2010. Web. 13 Apr. 2017. Refugee-Gap-Economic-Outcomes-of.

Gold, S., and N. Kibria. "Vietnamese Refugees and Blocked Mobility." Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 2.1 (1993): 27–56. SAGE. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

“Learn About the Refugee Application Process.” USCIS. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 23 Mar. 2017. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

Soss, Joe. “Making Clients and Citizens: Welfare Policy as a Source of Status, Belief, and Action.” Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions and Public Policy (2005): 291–328.ResearchGate. Web. 13 Apr. 2017. and-citizens- welfare-policy-as-a- source-of-status.

Strolovitch, Dara Z. “Do Interest Groups Represent the Disadvantaged? Advocacy at the Intersections of Race, Class, and Gender.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 68, no. 4, 2006, pp. 894–910. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

Lerman, Amy E., and Vesla M. Weaver. “Protests Have Achieved Some of America’s Greatest Ideals.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2017

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