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Refugees in the United States

Overview

  • A refugee is a person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
  • Resettlement is the careful selection by governments for purposes of lawful admission of the most vulnerable refugees who can neither return to their home nor live in safety in neighboring host countries.
  • The Refugee Act of 1980 incorporated the United Nations 1951 Convention’s definition of refugee into U.S. law and provides the legal basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
  • Each year, the President and the Congress determine the “ceiling” or numerical limit to the number of refugees that can be admitted and resettled in the US.

The history of US policy on refugees

The events of World War II displaced millions of people across Europe. In 1951, the United Nations convened in Geneva and defined the term “refugee” and determined refugee rights. A refugee is a person living outside their country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. They may face unlawful arrest or violence on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. But, this definition only applied to people who had been displaced as a result of events occurring before January 1, 1951.
The United Nations reconvened in 1967 after realising that people all around the world still faced persecution and could qualify as refugees. At this convention, the United Nations adopted an international treaty to remove the time and location restrictions so that refugee status would be more universal. Although the United States is a founding member of the United Nations, the US did not ratify the treaty from the 1951 Convention, but ratified the 1967 protocol.
Many refugees resettled in the United States after the Vietnam War, and this highlighted the need to formalize refugee resettlement into law. The Refugee Act of 1980 formalized the refugee resettlement system in the United States, creating the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. It also incorporated the United Nations 1951 Convention’s definition of refugee into US law and provides the legal basis for today’s US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
Check for understanding
Which of the following statements best defines a refugee?
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A group of people wearing life jackets and holding signs like "Refugees Welcome."
A group of people stand outside of the US Capitol to protest changes the Trump Administration made to the Asylum and Refugee Resettlement program . Image credit: Victoria Pickering, Flickr Commons

What is the process for refugee resettlement in the US?

There are three categories that individuals must meet to gain access to the US refugee program:
  • Priority One. Individuals with compelling persecution needs or those for whom no other durable solution exists. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refers these people to the United States, or a US embassy or a non-governmental organization (NGO) identifies them.
  • Priority Two. Groups of “special concern” to the United States, which are selected by the Department of State with input from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), UNHCR, and designated NGOs. Currently, the groups include certain persons from the former Soviet Union, Burma, and Iraq.
  • Priority Three. The relatives (parents, spouses, or unmarried children under 21) of refugees who are already settled in the United States. The US-based relative must file an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) that the Department of Homeland Security must process.
Only one percent of all refugees are recommended for resettlement globally. People seeking refugee status must leave their country before applying. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are not eligible for refugee status. In addition to the UNHCR’s recommendation, the US conducts its own screening process to decide whether to accept a refugee for resettlement. This process can take up to two years.
  • Step one: UNHCR refers a refugee to be considered for resettlement and provides background information.
  • Step two: The US Government screens the refugee and decides whether to admit them for resettlement. This part of the process involves eight US government agencies, five security databases, six background checks, and three in-person interviews.
  • Step three: If the refugee is approved, the State Department assigns the case to one of nine US NGOs. Refugees get lawful permanent residence when they enter the United States, but they still have to go through the naturalization process to become an American citizen.
  • Step four: The NGO helps the refugee integrate and become economically self-sufficient in their new US community.

What is the difference between refugees and asylum seekers?

An asylum-seeker is someone who seeks international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. In contrast, a refugee is someone who has been recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to be a refugee. The definition of refugee does not cover other individuals or groups of people who leave their country only because of war or other civil disturbance, famine, natural disasters or in order to seek a better life.
Asylum-seekers must apply for protection after they arrive at or cross a border into the country they want to move to. Then, they must be able to prove to authorities there that they meet the criteria to be covered by refugee protections. Not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee. In the United States, refugees need to have only left their home country to apply for refugee status, whereas asylum-seekers need to get to a US port of entry before they can ask for asylum.
Check for understanding
Which of the following statements best describes the difference between a refugee and an asylum-seeker?
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How does the US determine how many refugees to admit each year?

The Refugee Act of 1980 authorizes the President, with the consultation of Congress, to determine the “ceiling,” or numerical limit, to the number of refugees that can be admitted and resettled in the US each year.
Graph showing the number of refugee admissions from 1975 to 2019. There were a couple of peaks, including in 1980 with over 200,000 and in 1992 with over 125,000. However, over the last twenty years, there have been fewer than 100,000 refugees admitted to the United States and in 2019 there was a cap for only 30,000 admissions.
Annual admissions of refugees to the United States have decreased from 1975 to 2019.
The State Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) work together to evaluate different refugee populations for admission and the capacity of U.S. government officials to process these applications.
US refugee ceiling and admissions have declined in recent years. Each fiscal year post 2017 marks new all-time lows in the US refugee admissions cap. In 2017, about 53,700 refugees resettled in the US, then in 2018 the ceiling was set at an all-time low of 45,000. However, actual refugee admission and resettlement for 2018 was around 22,415. For 2019, the ceiling was set at another all-time low of 30,000 with 22,500 admitted. Fiscal year 2020 marks a new all time low in the US refugee admissions ceiling with the cap set at 18,000.

What do you think?

  • If a country is struggling to provide for its own citizens, should it take in refugees? What reasons are there for taking in or not taking in refugees?
  • What factors do you think influence policies about refugee resettlement?
  • What do you know about refugee resettlement in your community?
  • What resources or opportunities would you like to see in your community to support refugees?

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