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The US should welcome refugees on humanitarian terms, not just economic ones

In December 1991, about 20 days before the Soviet Union formally disintegrated, my family landed in San Francisco as religious refugees fleeing persecution. I was a 9-year-old kid who had just experienced his first airplane trip and was utterly mesmerized by the skyscrapers of the city’s skyline as we drove past. It felt like arriving into the future.

My parents had almost nothing to their names. No degrees or specialized skills. Not a word of English. Only a few hundred dollars in cash from selling most of our possessions in Russia. They had just learned that half of our “luggage” — makeshift bags that were hand-sewn by my mother out of used floor rugs — was lost in transit.

Our journey wasn’t made possible by some employer seeking specialized labor, nor by a merit assessment that deemed our family as economically valuable immigrants. Instead, it was made possible by many Americans seeing inherent value in human beings seeking a better life. From people who wrote letters to Congress to increase refugee quotas, to sponsoring families who shared their homes and paychecks and lives to support arriving families, to organizations like World Relief, which funded unsecured loans to pay for airline tickets for those who couldn’t afford them — all did their part with no expectation of economic gain.

I worry that outlier success stories — especially those that are filled with considerable luck and privilege like mine — can send the wrong message.

Integration into life in the United States wasn’t easy. Our family had to rely on welfare for several years as our parents learned English in night classes and attempted many different ways to make a living for our family of eight. Not being able to find a full-time job, my father tried every mail-order contract gig he could learn about — from cutting out thousands of leather pieces for shoes to soldering electronic boards to order to translation of documents from English to Russian. Eventually, he started his own business repairing and maintaining computers.

In every moment, I saw my parents seeking to pay back what others had selflessly done for us. They taught me there’s dignity to doing good work, even if it’s work that others don’t find glamorous. Even a decade later, our family was still barely scraping by financially. As I was applying to colleges as a senior in high school, our entire family would pack up our minivan on most evenings after dinner to clean dental clinics to make ends meet.

This is the point in my tale where it might make the most sense to insert my own story of living out a wildly unbelievable version of the American dream — especially for a refugee.

I could tell you how after college I co-founded Webflow, a no-code software development company that employs nearly 300 people and is now valued at over $2 billion. And how stories like mine are the reason why we should open our doors to more refugees to come to the United States.

However, I worry that outlier success stories — especially those that are filled with considerable luck and privilege like mine — can send the wrong message. These tales can imply that the value and worth of immigrants and refugees are primarily economic. I worry that especially now, at a time when immigration has become a politically polarizing issue in this country, the conversation about the value of immigrants will continue shifting toward being purely merit-based.

Too often, if “merit” is the criterion, human beings are seen as worthy of joining our country if and only if they’re the “best of the best” or the “cream of the crop” in some skill or industry. In such cases, people are judged solely by how much economic value they can create in the short term.

Yes, merit-based immigration has an important place in our economy to solve shorter-term skill gaps in various industries. But if we only focus on that, I believe that our nation will have lost an important part of its character and heritage. We shouldn’t reduce our efforts to offer a safe haven to people whose lives are threatened back home. Turning our backs on the most vulnerable only to focus on the most economically advantageous would betray the spirit of what I believe makes the United States a beacon of hope and opportunity for so many people.

The good news is that you can get outsized economic benefits in the longer term by accepting more refugees. I know this because for every startup founder story like mine, there are hundreds of thousands of hard-working refugees who needed some help at first but are now contributing massively to our tax base as nurses, doctors, lawyers, firefighters and business owners. In fact, refugees have the highest rate of entrepreneurship.

After experiencing hardship and oppression in their originating countries, refugees have unparalleled drive to make a better living for themselves, their families and their communities — which helps lift our entire economy.

My hope is that more people are given this kind of opportunity and that more industry leaders will start to advocate for immigration on humanitarian terms — not just economic ones. It will make our economy stronger in the end.

When given the chance to live freely without fearing for our lives, my family and so many others like us will work harder than most to contribute to society. Why? Because we feel a deep sense of gratitude to a nation that welcomed and accepted us because of, first and foremost, who we are as human beings.

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