Expert Commentary

U.S. refugee admissions and resettlement policy

2012 Congressional Research Service report summaries the admissions figures, details and history related to U.S. refugee policy.

According to the United States Refugee Act of 1980, “a refugee is a person who is outside his or her country and who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.”

Despite this unchanging definition, the politics and policies surrounding the admission of refugees into the United States are complex and ever-fluctuating. The number of refugees admitted changes over time, as do their countries of origin. Different regions of the world have quotas reflecting historical and current international and domestic affairs, but for a variety of reasons the U.S. government rarely fills these in a given year.

A 2012 Congressional Research Service report, “Refugee Admissions and Resettlement Policy,” summarizes the admissions figures, details and history related to this policy issue.

The report’s highlights include:

  • For fiscal year 2012, the United States has a ceiling of 76,000 refugee admissions — 73,000 from different global regions and 3,000 unallocated slots.
  • Nearly half (35,500) of the 2012 slots are dedicated to refugees from the Near East and South Asia. Since 2008, more admissions have come from those regions than any other; this represents a shift away from allocating for larger numbers of African and Eastern European refugees.
  • While the ceiling for total refugee admissions remained relatively stable between 2001 and 2011 at 70,000 to 80,000, actual admissions varied significantly. In FY2001 (the federal fiscal year runs October to September) 69,304 were admitted; immediately after 9/11 this fell to 27,131 in FY2002 and 28,404 in FY2003. By FY2011, admissions had risen to 56,424, but still remained lower than the number a decade earlier.
  • The following nationalities are expected to comprise the majority of refugees from each region in 2012:
    • For the 35,500 Near East and South Asia allocations, “admissions are expected to include Iraqis, Bhutanese, Iranians, Pakistanis and Afghans”;
    • For the 18,000 slots allocated to the East Asia region, Burmese refugees living in Thailand and Malaysia will represent the primary admissions;
    • For the 5,500 slots allocated to Latin America and the Caribbean, Cubans are typically the vast majority of admissions;
    • For the 12,000 slots allocated to Africa, Somalis, Congolese and Eritreans will represent many of the admissions.
  • The Europe and Central Asia region saw the most significant shift in admission quotas, dropping from 37,000 in 2001 to only 2,000 in 2011. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. rapidly expanded the number of admissions for Russian refugees, putting the total admissions figure well above 100,000 from 1989 to 1994.
  • The U.S. Department of State is responsible for processing refugee requests and sorting applications into three categories: “Priority 1 covers refugees for whom resettlement seems to be the appropriate durable solution…. Priority 2 covers groups of special humanitarian concern to the United States such as Cuban dissidents…. Priority 3 covers family reunification cases [but] is limited to designated nationalities.”
  • After meeting the legal requirements for official refugee classification, an individual must also pass “certain health-related and security-related grounds of inadmissibility” to be granted refuge in the United States.
  • The budget for refugee resettlement services has grown from $480.9 million in FY2003 to $768.3 million in FY2012. Approximately half of this budget is committed to transitional cash and immediate medical aid for newly admitted refugees.
  • Unless they are granted full U.S. citizenship, refugees are only eligible for social welfare benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid for between five and seven years.

For a critical look at the way these policies have, and continue to, play out, see the 2012 study “The Faltering US Refugee Protection System: Legal and Policy Responses to Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, and Others in Need of Protection.” That study finds that “security reviews have left tens of thousands of bona fide refugees in dangerous situations for protracted periods. The government entities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that comprise USRAP often coordinate poorly with one another. In addition, US policymakers have not come to terms with the tension between the programme’s goals of admitting the most vulnerable refugees and ensuring their successful integration. ”

Tags: human rights, Africa, Asia, Europe

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