Refugee Resettlement in the United States

Oct 28, 2015 | Immigration


In 2014, nearly 60 million people around the world were displaced from their homes due to unsafe living conditions, more than any other time since World War II (WWII). The ongoing conflict in Syria had led to an unforeseen influx of refugees in Europe, bringing global attention to the complex issues of migration. Last month, President Obama agreed to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, after admitting less than 1,500 since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Currently, the U.S. receives more refugees than any other country, with an 85,000 refugee cap for FY 2016. The cap is agreed upon by the President and Congress. As a country, the U.S. spent $1.1 billion on refugee admissions last year, but aid organizations and various other countries believe the U.S. can do more.


According to the American Immigration Council, the need for international protection of refugees began with those displaced in Europe after WWII. Typically, refugees are displaced in a neighboring country and resettled in a third country through international organizations like the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The resettlement program is a public-private partnership funded by private agencies, non-governmental organizations and community organizations. It receives an additional $600 million annually from the Office of Refugee Resettlement and $350 million from the State Department’s Reception and Placement (R&P) program. Given that funding has not kept up with inflation or with increased resettlement needs, it also relies on voluntary labor and in-kind donations.


A refugee is defined as “a person unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin” in Section 101(a) 42, of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The definition was based on the U.N. 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols, which the U.S. joined in 1968. The U.S. included the Convention’s definition into law after the Vietnamese war and resettlement of Indochinese refugees, giving the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) a legal basis.

There is an exception to the INA’s well-founded fear cases for members of a special group in the Lautenberg Amendment, which gave refugee status to people of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and Southeast Asia with the passage of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill. Today, the agreement primarily serves Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities fleeing Iran and FSU.

Priority is given first to individuals being persecuted, then groups of “special concern” which includes people from the FSU, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Iran, Burma and Bhutan. Final priority is given to relatives of refugees (parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21), who are already in the U.S.


Becoming a refugee is a complicated process that typically takes 18 to 24 months. Potential refugees are interviewed in-person by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) representative and must pass a security clearance and medical exam before being registered with a U.N. refugee agency. Because the U.S. takes referrals from anywhere, DHS waits until a large group of people need to be interviewed before sending a representative. The security checks are screened by the National Counter-Terrorism and FBI Terrorist Screening Centers using databases maintained by DHS, Department of Defense (DOD) and the intelligence community. Biographical and biometric information is also collected.

Once an individual is granted refugee status, the government, the U.N. agency referring the refugee and other organizations coordinate relocation and accommodations. Before arriving in the U.S., refugees are given a cultural orientation and must sign a promissory note for an interest-free loan to cover travel expenses; payments begin 6 months after arrival. The Office for Migration (IOM) notifies private voluntary agencies (VOLAG) of travel approval so that they can arrange airfare and transportation to the refugee’s home.

A refugee is required to apply for legal permanent residency after a year and is eligible for naturalization after 5 years. This makes refugees more likely to be naturalized, with 59 percent of refugees versus 44 percent of other immigrants naturalized during 2009-2013.

The U.S. refugee resettlement system encourages self-sufficiency.  Refugee men are employed at a higher rate than U.S.-born peers, with two-thirds of refugee men employed during the 2009-2011 period, compared to 60 percent of U.S.-born men and women during the same period. In 2009-2011, 75 percent of refugees had a high school diploma and 28 percent of refugees had a college degree.

While refugees are eligible for public assistance,  their dependence decreases over time. In 2009-2011, less than one-fourth of refugee households depended on food stamps after 10 years, compared to 11 percent for the U.S. born. The median income for refugees was at 42 percent of U.S.-born income within 5 years, and at 87 percent of U.S.-born income after 10-20 years.

U.S. refugee resettlement
Syrian refugee crisis

UNHCR doesn’t start referring immediately in hopes that the conflict will end and those displaced will be able to return home. In the case of the Syrian civil war, UNHCR didn’t make any referrals until 2014, even though the war started in 2011. Despite the U.S. claiming to take in the most refugees, the U.S. failed to actually take in the cited amount of refugees in recent years.

Syrian immigrants already in the U.S. are well educated and doing well. In 2014, 39 percent of Syrian immigrants were college graduates, more than both foreign and U.S.-born, with a median income of $52,000. Syrian immigrants arriving since 2012 had even higher educational attainment and socioeconomic status. Syrian refugee data is not yet available, and there is the potential for variation from overall Syrian immigrant data.


The United States’ lack of commitment to resolving the Syrian refugee crisis has been criticized by aid organizations and those who believe that the U.S. can do more. According to Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S.’ practice is outdated for a mass refugee crisis. She adds that the last time the U.S. dealt with a refugee crisis was in the 1990s when refugees were arriving by boat from Cuba and Haiti.

Meissner also highlights that the U.S. is not in a position to accept refugees like it did before 9/11. The U.S. used to offer refuge to tens of thousands at a time. Immediately following 9/11, the number of refugees admitted dropped to 27,131 in 2012 but has risen since, with 69,987 admitted last year, just under the 70,000 cap.

U.S. annual refugee resettlement ceiling, 1980–2016

According to the Migration Policy Institute, of the 784,000 refugees that have arrived since 9/11, 3 have been arrested for terrorist plots, 2 of whom were planning their attacks outside the U.S.

Meissner points out that the U.S. has led by example in resettlement and how it reacts to crisis and encourages the government to look at ways to speed up the vetting process in order to settle the 10,000 Syrians it has agreed to admit.

With no end in sight to the Syrian civil war, countries around the world must consider the role they will play in this ongoing humanitarian crisis.