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Utah Faces A Labor Shortage As Refugee Resettlement Declines

Photo of Bilal.
Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Moawiyah Bilal, 43, a cook at the Ishtar Grill and Restaurant in Salt Lake City, shows of one of the dishes he prepares. Bilal’s family was the first Syrian refugee family that resettled in Utah.";

When Kholoud Abou Arida, Moawiyah Bilal and their three children arrived in Salt Lake City in 2014 after fleeing their war-torn homeland in Syria, they were a different kind of Utah pioneer.

With no other Syrian refugee families like theirs in Utah, according to State Department statistics, they felt alone with few if any other refugees who could understand the circumstances.

“It was so hard for us at the beginning. I wasn’t speaking English and we don’t know any people here,” said Abou Arida, 38.

As more Syrian refugees arrived in Utah, Abou Arida said she and her husband Bilal, 43, took it upon themselves to make the new arrivals feel welcome and answer questions about their new home. Today, their home acts as a gathering place where they all can enjoy Arabic music, food and a Shisha pipe, or Hookah.

Photo of Kholoud.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Kholoud Abou Arida hands out snacks for her fellow refugees and friends on a recent Sunday night in her Millcreek home.

But the flow of Syrian refugees to Utah was short lived. None have been resettled in Utah since 2018, when the Trump administration closed the door almost entirely to Syrian refugees. That year, the United States only took in 41 Syrian refugees, according to data from the Department of State. Policies by the Trump Administration, like its travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries, have significantly scaled back the country’s refugees resettlement program and slow down other forms of immigration.

These changes come as the Utah businesses are facing a need for more workers. Currently, Utah has a 3% unemployment rate, lower than the 4% national average. This means fewer Utahns are looking for jobs, leaving businesses in the service and hospitality industries scrambling for more workers.

Refugee Cap Falls Under Trump

During the Obama administration, the U.S. resettled as many as 110,000 refugees. In 2017, the Trump administration lowered the target number to 45,000, but only resettled about 21,000 people. Last September, the Trump administration again lowered the refugee ceiling, which is now at 30,000, the lowest cap in four decades.

The administration said the decrease was in response to the overwhelming number of asylum seekers arriving at the southern border.

“This year’s refugee ceiling reflects our commitment to protect the most vulnerable around the world while prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of the American people as President Trump has directed,” Pompeo said. “We must continue to responsibly vet applicants to prevent those who might do harm to our country.”

Credit KUER
The number of refugees resettled in Utah has declined sharply in the past two years.

Utah refugee resettlement programs say they are hoping to welcome at least 400 refugees this year. But businesses like Salt Lake Brewing Company see a need for more workers like refugees to come to the state.

The company, which manages Squatters Craft Beers and Wasatch Brewery, usually hires immigrants from Mexico or Central America as cooks and dishwashers, said Chief Operating Officer Doug Hofeling.

He estimates that 40% of his staff is immigrant, but now, he’s seeing less of their typical applicants.

‘I’ve Never Seen It Like This’

Salt Lake Brewing Company started feeling a squeeze about five years ago, but Hofeling said the situation has gotten worse in the the past three years.

“It’s scary,” Hofeling said. “I’ve never seen it like this and you can talk to pretty much anybody in the hospitality industry, the agricultural industry. They are in the same position we are. We need low-skilled, hardworking people that can do these jobs.”

Some positions take two to six months to fill, Hofeling said. The company has offered incentives for employees who can recommend applicants and that was working for a while, Hofeling said. It’s also raised their starting salary for dishwashers from $11 to as much as $17. Now, it’s gotten so bad that Hofeling tried to tap into a new workforce: refugees. But like other local businesses, he didn’t have much luck.

Photo of Hofeling.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Doug Hofeling, the chief operating officer of Salt Lake Brewery Company, poses for a photo at Squatters Pub in Salt Lake City. His company is struggling to find new workers.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce also sees a need for more legal immigration. Last month, the chamber and hundreds community members and leaders re-signed the Utah Compact. It’s a 2010 statement that asks Utah’s congressional leaders and others to adopt immigration policies that are humane, keep families together and benefit the economy.

“You want to make legal immigration easier,” said Natalie Gochnour, the chamber’s chief economist and the director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Many Utah economists believe Utah’s labor shortage could be affecting all industries based on the state’s low unemployment rate and the average wages, which increased by an estimated 3.8% in 2018, Gochnour said.

“We have need for hourly workers and for high-skilled engineers and computer scientists,” she said. “There are so many ways immigrants contribute to our economy and can do more.”

Refugees As Economic Driver

There’s an estimated 272,000 immigrants living in Utah, 60,000 of which are refugees. Even though refugees make up about 2% of the state’s population, a 2017 report by New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization, found that refugees’ economic contributions in the state are significant.

“In Utah, overall, they had spending power of $324 million. That’s quite of bit of money especially because Utah isn’t the sort of primary destination for a lot of refugees,” said Andrew Lim, the organization’s director of quantitative research.

The report was the first time the organization looked at refugees’ economic impact. New American Economy took on the project after hearing refugee resettlement agencies say that their tradition messages of compassion and humanitarian crisis weren’t resonating with the public like they used to after the 2016.

“They were looking for another way to sort of tell the refugee story in America,” Lim said.

While refugees receive some federal assistance when they first arrive, the report said that period typically lasts only eight months or less. As time goes by, New American Economy says refugees rapidly growing their incomes in subsequent years and by homes and start businesses at high rates. This shows that initial, short-term assistance for refugees is a smart investment, the report said.

New American Economy has tracked several cities like Utica, New York or Akron, Ohio who had seen their population decline or age over the years, but had their labor markets stabilized after refugees came in.

Other cities experiencing similar struggles can benefit from new refugees, but they won’t get that opportunity if the decline trend continues, Lim said. So far, the United States has admitted less than half of the 30,000 refugees it committed to resettling this year.

Photo of Kholoud.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Syrian refugee Kholoud Abou Arida holds baby Silla Hredeen on a recent Sunday night in her Millcreek home.

Over the years, Salt Lake Brewing Company COO Doug Hofeling has talked to former Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee about the need for legal immigration. Hofeling hopes after the Trump administration, the U.S. will welcome more immigrants.

“These are some of the hardest working people doing the hardest jobs upon which our entire industry and our entire economy rests,” Hofeling said.

Lucky To Be Alive

Syrian refugee Moawiyah Bilal and his family feel lucky to be in Utah. After the Syrian civil war broke out, he was thrown in jail twice for reasons the family doesn’t fully understand.

That’s when the family realized that Syria was no longer safe for them. Bilal fled to Lebanon where he was connected with the United Nations’ refugee agency which helped the family restart their lives in Utah.

Bilal now works as a cook at the Istar Grill and Restaurant, a Middle Eastern eatery previously known as the Shawarma King, and is surrounded by other people who have similar stories as his family.

But Bilal still thinks the rest of his family who also wants an opportunity to restart their lives but can’t.

“I would love some help in bringing my siblings over so we can have our extended family together and they could provide a better future for their children,” Bilal said.

The Bilal family is moving forward with their lives. They are preparing to apply for citizenship. Bilal’s dream is to one day open his own restaurant.

Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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