A Pivotal Moment for the US Refugee Resettlement Program

The US Refugee Resettlement Program

The US Refugee Resettlement Program

THE US COMMITMENT TO REFUGEE resettlement began after WWII when the United States admitted 250,000 refugees from Europe. Although initially resistant, the US eventually decided to accept these individuals to ease geopolitical and humanitarian concerns. Currently, the US is a global leader in refugee resettlement; of the 105,200 refugees who were resettled globally in 2014, the US resettled 73,000 of them.20

Since 1980, however, the US has become less responsive to international refugee crises. Institutionally within the US, the resettlement program has undergone major changes, resulting in a complex and multilayered set of processes that involve numerous federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations.

History of US Refugee Resettlement Efforts

The first legislation in the US related to refugee resettlement was the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, which Congress passed following the admission of 250,000 Europeans after World War II. The Displaced Persons Act allowed for the resettlement of an additional 400,000 more refugees.21

This legislation followed many years of resistance to refugee resettlement in the US. In 1939, for example, a bill allowing 20,000 German Jewish children to enter the US failed in Congress.22 Also in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to admit Jewish refugees aboard a ship fleeing Europe.23

After WWII, however, two forces were decisive in the decision by the US to accept refugees. First, lawmakers were concerned about the possibility that 20–30 million displaced people in Europe could cause major geopolitical instability. Second, lawmakers recognized the strategic value of providing humanitarian relief to refugees from Communist countries.24

Thereafter, the US used an ad-hoc approach to refugee resettlement and sought to admit people fleeing communist regimes (mainly Hungary, Yugoslavia, Korea, China and Cuba).25 These ad-hoc programs relied on the US Attorney General’s “parole” authority to allow the entry of people into the country for urgent humanitarian reasons.26 In many cases, the Attorney General only granted these “parolees” temporary residence status, and the government later granted them permanent status.27 Two of the largest groups of parolees were Cuban asylum seekers in the 1960s and 1970s and Southeast Asians following the fall of Saigon in 1975. In both cases the United States admitted hundreds of thousands of refugees to the country.28

In 1968, the US was one of the signatories of the UN Refugee Convention, although that did not significantly alter US policy. In 1980, after 30 years of an ad hoc approach to resettlement, Congress enacted the Refugee Act of 1980, which established a more systematic framework that serves as the basis of the current US refugee resettlement program. 

The 1980 Refugee Act, which amended the Immigration and Nationality Act, established a process for resettling refugees with consistent federal funding. The Act served two purposes: 1) to provide a uniform procedure for refugee admissions and 2) to authorize federal assistance to resettle refugees and promote their self-sufficiency.29 Since its enactment, the Act has facilitated the development of a comprehensive and complex system for refugee resettlement.

In the first year of the Refugee Act, the US admitted 207,000 refugees, a number that has not been exceeded since—the US resettles far fewer refugees today than it did in 1980 and the early 1990s (see Figure 2). The spike in admissions in 1980 was primarily due to Indochinese refugees fleeing after the Vietnam War and the 1975 communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, 30 while the increase in the early 1990s was due primarily to refugees fleeing the Balkan wars and other regional conflicts.31

Since these spikes, the US has not responded to refugee crises, such as the crisis caused by the civil war in Syria, with similarly major increases in refugee admissions.

Figure 2 includes a graph of the historical US refugee admissions from 1975 to 2015.


Structure of the Modern US Resettlement Program

Each year the US President initiates the resettlement process by consulting with Congress to set an annual ceiling on the number of refugees the US will accept.33 In fiscal year 2016 the ceiling was 85,000, with plans by the Obama Administration to increase the ceiling to 110,000 in 2017. 

The number of refugees that the US government resettles is frequently below the ceiling. This discrepancy was particularly wide following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001. In 2002 the ceiling was 70,000 but only 27,131 refugees entered the country;34 in 2012, the ceiling was 76,000, but only 56,424 refugees were admitted.

The reasons for these discrepancies are complex and contextual to the time period. It could be due to a lack of cooperation in the refugees’ country of first asylum, ongoing political complications, or the fact that the US began accepting refugees from a wider range of countries, whereas it has previously admitted them from a smaller set of countries.35 According to Kathleen Newland, an immigration and refugee policy expert, two factors led to the discrepancy after 9/11.36 First, the Bush Administration suspended the refugee resettlement program for two months. Second, the administration put new security protocols in place, reducing the number of refugees who made it through the security screening process.

After the President annually sets the admissions ceiling, the next step in the process is the overseas processing of refugees, which the State Department and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) work together to manage.37 Once USCIS approves a refugee for resettlement, the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) coordinates the process of placing the individual (and his or her family) in a specific city. 

PRM works closely with nine voluntary agencies that have cooperative agreements with the State Department to resettle refugees.38 Before a refugee arrives in the US, representatives of these voluntary agencies meet to decide where to place the individual. The Refugee Act of 1980 also requires the federal government to consult with states and local jurisdictions to coordinate the placement of refugees throughout the country.39 They will first attempt to place the refugee in the same city as any of his or her relatives. If the individual does not have any relatives in the country, then the agencies attempt to find a city that has the necessary resources to meet the refugee’s needs (such as ethnic communities, employment opportunities, affordable housing, and educational and health services). The Refugee Act also requests that the agencies ensure the individual is not placed in an area that is already highly impacted by the presence of refugees. 

After the refugee arrives in the US, his or her voluntary agency receives a Reception and Placement grant directly from PRM to fund the initial three months of resettlement.40 Thereafter, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) works through the states and nongovernmental organizations to provide longterm assistance. Each state voluntarily opts in to the refugee resettlement program by appointing a state refugee coordinator and submitting a plan outlining how it will allocate public and private resources to support refugees.41 These states decide between three options for administering the ORR funds: 1) public administration, 2) contracts with nonprofit organizations, or 3) a public private partnership. 

The administrator of the federal funds (states or nonprofit organizations) receives the ORR funds in the form of quarterly grants. ORR determines the amount of funds to allocate to states based on the number of refugees that are resettled in each state.42 ORR gives three main categories of grants: 1) cash and medical assistance, 2) social services, and 3) discretionary grants. The Refugee Act expects the administrator to play a coordinating role in the provision of these services and assistance.43 In the case of social services grants, the administrator coordinates the reimbursement of local resettlement agencies for the services they provide (such as interpretation and translation, job training and English language instruction). With regard to cash and medical assistance grants, states generally model the disbursement of funds after their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.44

The majority of states (32) administer the funds directly through state-run offices. Twelve states, however, participate in the alternative Wilson-Fish program, in which they contract with nonprofit organizations.45 A central goal of this alternative program is to increase the number of states with an ORR-funded resettlement program by allowing nonprofit organizations to administer the funds.46 Another option for states is to use public private partnerships to administer the funds. This program, which five states currently participate in, allows states the flexibility to offer additional cash assistance to refugees.47 Wyoming is the only state that does not participate at all in the refugee resettlement program.48

If a state wishes to withdraw from the refugee program it must provide 120 days advance notice to the ORR Director of Refugee Resettlement.49 It is not entirely clear in the Act whether a state must withdraw through legislation or executive action. A state may decide to retain responsibility for certain aspects of the program or to withdraw entirely.50 When a state withdraws entirely or from part of the program it may choose to have a replacement agency or agencies administer the federal funds through a public private partnership or the Wilson-Fish program.51 States that have decided to have a replacement agency administer the program may also decide to re-establish state coordination. For example, a bill was recently introduced in South Dakota to change the administration of the resettlement program from the current Wilson-Fish program to state administration.52

The 1980 Refugee Act put into place a complex, multi-stakeholder system for screening, receiving, and supporting resettled refugees. This process is a collaborative effort between states, international organizations, and the federal government. 

Tensions Facing the US Refugee Resettlement Program

Since its enactment in 1980, the modern US refugee resettlement system has faced numerous tensions. The amount of federal funding devoted to the program has declined at the same time that the refugees entering the country have come from a wider range of countries and in need of more intensive support. Recent attempts at the state and federal level to restrict the US refugee resettlement program worsen these tensions, threatening to undermine the US commitment to refugee protection. 

Program Changes since the 1980 Refugee Act

Since the early 1980s the financial responsibility for supporting refugees has gradually shifted from the federal government to state governments and resettlement agencies. For example, in the original Act, states received grants for cash and medical assistance for each refugee’s first three years of residence in their state.53 However, Congress decreased that support to 18 months in 1982 and further reduced it to eight months in 1991.54 Moreover, in 1990, the refugee program eliminated the time frame during which the federal government would cover the state share of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, and SSI.55 Thus, the federal government currently does not supplement states’ budgetary share of programs that support refugees but are not directly part of the refugee program, such as SNAP or TANF. These cuts have had significant budgetary implications for states and resettlement agencies. A 2008 analysis by a national voluntary agency, for example, found that federal contributions amount to 39 percent of the total cost of supporting a newly resettled refugee during his or her first 90 days in the country.56 Resettlement agencies cover the remainder of the expense through in-kind donations, volunteer hours, and direct contributions. 

Another significant change since the enactment of the 1980 Refugee Act has been the increasing diversity of the US refugee population. Over time, the resettlement program has shifted the groups it targets for resettlement from large-scale populations of special interest to the US (such as refugees fleeing communism) to smaller numbers of people from a wider set of countries.57 The US now resettles a large number of highly vulnerable refugees, who often have significant mental health challenges and extremely limited language ability. Because of ORR’s goal to promote self-sufficiency among refugees within as short of a time as possible, this increased diversity has created tensions within the program.58 The populations of refugees arriving in the country face unique challenges that require adequate support to ease their transition

The commitment to refugee resettlement in the US has declined since its high point in the 1980s. Since then, the federal government has shifted much of the responsibility for financing resettlement to states and nonprofit agencies. Recent rhetoric, lawsuits, and policy proposals threaten to accelerate an already wavering commitment to refugee protection.

Trump Administration Executive Orders

On January 27, 2017, Donald Trump signed an executive order that suspended refugee resettlement for 120 days, banned the arrival of Syrian refugees, and reduced, from 110,000 to 50,000, the overall number of refugees the US would admit to the country. The order also banned travelers from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Sudan and Libya from entering the US for 90 days from the date of the order. Initially, the ban also included legal permanent residents and visa holders, an interpretation that led to the illegal detention of families, students, and former interpreters for the US military. 

Legal scholars criticized the “astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction,” which opened up the Trump Administration to numerous legal challenges.59 In response, more than 50 lawsuits were filed by religious groups, state attorneys general, residents, and visitors to the country.60

On February 9, 2017 the US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier ruling from a federal judge in Washington State temporarily halting the executive order.61 The three-judge panel based their ruling partially on statements made by Donald Trump on the campaign trail about his plan to implement a "Muslim ban."

In response to these legal challenges, President Trump signed a new version of the initial executive order on March 6, 2017. This new order revokes the original order and makes various minor adjustments, including the removal of Iraq from the list of designated travel ban countries and allowing legal permanent residents from the designated countries to enter the US.62

Despite the changes, federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland blocked the executive order before it could be implemented.63 On March 29, 2017, Hawaii Judge Derrick Watson extended the block on the executive order.64 This preliminary injunction blocks the travel ban on individuals from the six countries listed in the order, does not allow the administration to put the resettlement program on hold for 120 days, and maintains the refugee admissions ceiling at 110,000 persons. 

Recent rhetoric, lawsuits, and policy proposals threaten to accelerate an already wavering commitment to refugee protection in the United States.

On May 25, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected the federal government’s appeal of the lower court’s ruling, saying that the revised executive order, “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court.

On the same day as the Fourth Circuit's ruling, the State Department issued a separate decision to lift a weekly quota on the number of refugees allowed to enter the country. This weekly quota was largely a result of budget constraints imposed by Congress last Fall. Importantly, this decision does not affect the refugee admissions ceiling, which remains at 110,000. However, it will likely have a significant affect on the number of refugees who actually enter the US—refugee groups have predicted that it will result in a doubling of the number of refugees allowed to enter the country in the current fiscal year. 

This promising development, along with the court rulings blocking the Trump Administration's executive orders, suggest that various US institutions and entities will continue to advocate for and assert that the country maintain its commitment to refugee resettlement, even in the face of threats to undermine it.

Attempts by US Governors to Limit Resettlement

The executive orders from the Trump Administration are occurring in the wake of an increase in anti-refugee rhetoric and policies among US lawmakers. In November 2015, for instance, 30 governors called for a stop to resettlement of Syrian refugees until the federal government addresses security concerns (see Appendix A for a list of each Governor’s statement).65 Twenty-four of those governors stated they would seek to actively prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees through executive action or other means.66,67

Despite the governors’ statements, it appears that only a very limited number of Syrian refugees were diverted from one state to another. One such instance occurred in Indiana when, after Governor Mike Pence issued a statement seeking to ban the resettlement of Syrian refugees, the state Division of Family Resources sent a letter to a national voluntary agency responsible for resettlement in Indiana asking that all Syrian arrivals be “suspended or redirected to another state that is willing to accept Syrian placements until assurances that proper security measures are in place have been provided by the federal government.”68 In response, the agency worked with a resettlement agency in Connecticut to redirect one Syrian family to New Haven. It is important to note, however, that this case was isolated and multiple Syrian families have been resettled in Indiana since, which illustrates that it is very difficult for states to implement a ban on any specific group of refugees.69

A number of legal scholars have asserted that governors do not have the authority to restrict travel into their territories.70 Additionally, state and federal officials have actively fought some of the governors’ attempts. The state of Texas, for example sought to deny the entry of Syrian refugees.71 A federal judge struck down the executive order within one day of it being issued because he found the state’s evidence that Syrian refugees could have infiltrated the refugee resettlement program to be largely speculative. The same judge again ruled against the state after it amended its application for preliminary injunction. The state claims that it is unlawful that the federal government did not consult with the state regarding each Syrian refugee that PRM resettled in Texas. The judge, however, argues that neither the Refugee Act nor the Administrative Procedure Act creates a cause of action for the state to compel the federal government to consult with the state regarding the resettlement of individual Syrian refugees in Texas.72

Government officials in other states have also pushed back against these types of directives. For instance, the Tennessee Office of the Attorney General issued an opinion outlining why a decision to deny entry to refugees would violate the US constitution.73 Specifically, the Attorney General stated that the federal government had already approved the refugees in question for resettlement in the US. Thus, such a decision would conflict with the federal government’s authority to regulate the admission of aliens to the country and would therefore violate the Supremacy Clause of the US constitution. Georgia’s Attorney General issued a statement with similar reasoning and conclusions in response to its governor’s executive order seeking to deny the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state.74

Likely due to the evidence that an outright ban on the admission of Syrian refugees would violate the Constitution, the governor of Indiana issued an executive order that limits the type of services to Syrian refugees for which the state government would reimburse resettlement agencies.75 Although the state initially sought to completely deny entry to Syrian refugees, the state then decided to allow Syrian refugees to enter its territory and continued to pay for federal entitlements such as cash assistance, education assistance and Medicaid. However, the state is withholding funds from resettlement agencies for social services such as interpretation, childcare and citizenship and naturalization assistance.76

In February of 2016 a federal district court judge held a hearing on this case and ruled against the state of Indiana, basing her ruling on the assessment that there is a strong likelihood that Indiana’s policy violates the Equal Protection Clause. The judge made three key arguments in reaching this conclusion.77 First, despite the state’s stated goal of preventing further resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state by withholding funds, voluntary agencies have continued to resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana. Thus, the state’s policy has been ineffective. Second, even if the state was actually able to deter voluntary agencies from resettling Syrian refugees, it would cause the agencies to stop the resettlement of all Syrians, including young children who pose very little security risk to the state. Third, the state’s policy punishes Syrian refugees who are already in Indiana by depriving them of social services, which is unlikely to further the State’s interest in improving public safety. Importantly, the judge states that the Court would reach the same conclusion even if it used a rational basis review of the State’s policy. This ruling will likely have important implications for state legislatures that attempt to pass legislation that would have similar aims to Indiana’s policy. It is unlikely that any policy that specifically targets refugees from one country or a group of countries will survive a constitutional challenge. 

Prior to the current backlash against resettling Syrian refugees, states had already taken action to reduce refugee resettlement. In 2010 Georgia Governor Nathan Deal withheld any state funding earmarked for reimbursing resettlement agencies for English instruction, job training, and academic programs.78 Although this directive was very similar to the Indiana Governor’s, it differed in the sense that it was targeted at all refugees resettled in the state. Likely as a result of this policy, the number of refugee arrivals in the state decreased from 3,272 to 2,635 per year between 2009 and 2011.79 However, after pressure from resettlement agencies the governor released the federal funds in December of 2011. This previous state effort demonstrates that the statements by 30 governors in late 2015 were not entirely unprecedented and that governors have previously attempted to identify mechanisms for curtailing resettlement into their states

Figure 3 includes a diagram showcasing the Top Hosting Countries for Syrian Refugees

Attempts by State and Federal Legislators to Limit Resettlement

Federal and state legislators have also attempted to curtail refugee resettlement. One example of state action occurred in 2011 in Tennessee when the state legislature passed the Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act. This legislation allowed local governments to submit a request for a one year moratorium on refugee resettlement to the Tennessee Office of Refugee Affairs documenting that the community lacks the capacity to host refugees. The state would then forward the request to the federal government and PRM would either approve or deny it.80 State legislators have introduced bills and resolutions that would 1) prohibit their respective state governments from assisting in the resettlement of refugees from Syria and/ or the Middle East, 2) require refugees to register with a government agency, 3) authorize the state to temporarily halt refugee resettlement, or 4) urge the United States Congress to take action limiting the resettlement of Syrian refugees or the resettlement of all refugees (see Appendix B for a table illustrating these policies). 

Additionally, members of Congress have introduced a variety of bills at the federal level that seek to curtail resettlement through measures such as increasing the standards governing security checks of refugees, reducing resettlement from Syria and other countries in the Middle East, or reducing overall levels of resettlement (see Appendix C). 

These lawsuits and legislative attempts by state and federal lawmakers demonstrate that the current administration’s restrictive approach to refugee resettlement is a continuation of a trend. Nearly all aspects of the two executive orders have been proposed before: stopping resettlement from Middle Eastern countries, implementing more rigorous security screening, reducing overall resettlement, and increasing states’ authority to accept or deny refugees. Moreover, these attempts at restricting the program come amidst a declining US commitment to resettlement since the 1980s. These two factors combined threaten to undermine the US commitment to protecting refugees, thereby worsening current and future refugee crises. 

Potential Implications of the US Restricting Refugee Resettlement

The global refugee crisis has reached an unprecedented urgency. A higher proportion of the world population is currently displaced from their homes than at any time since 1951.81 Nearly one in 20 people living in the Middle East are displaced.82 Displacement in Europe is similar to the levels seen following the collapse of Eastern Bloc countries in the 1990s.84 The UNHCR has estimated that 1,150,000 refugees globally are in need of resettlement, an increase of 22% from 201684 The agency announced that it aims to resettle 480,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2018.85 This announcement marks a drastic increase in total refugee resettlement, which has averaged 100,000 individuals in recent decades. However, individual countries have only pledged to resettle a total of 179,000 of these refugees.

Although a record number of refugees have fled to Europe—1.3 million in 201586 alone—it is countries near Syria that have taken the lead in resettling refugees87. Current estimates are that 664,100 Syrian refugees reside in Jordan and 2.5 million live in Turkey (see Figure 3). Refugees from Syria make up approximately 20% of Lebanon’s total population. 

This leadership by Middle Eastern countries in refugee resettlement is not a recent development. During World War II, thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Balkans fled to refugee camps in Middle Eastern countries such as Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.88 However, the current lack of international support for increased resettlement has made the pressure on these Middle Eastern countries worse and living conditions for many refugees are dire. 

Refugees & Security

Attempts to restrict refugee resettlement are based on the premise that refugees from the Middle East pose a significant security threat to the United States. Reality contradicts this belief. Of the 784,000 refugees that the United States has resettled since September 11, 2001, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities.90

A study by MI5’s behavioral science unit provides further evidence that refugees do not pose a security threat. The study found little to no connection between religiosity and extremism. Instead they found that many terrorists are religious novices and that a strong religious identity actually protects against radicalization.91 Additionally, it is highly unlikely that the refugees who are fleeing war and persecution are supporters of terrorism.

One key reason for the US resettlement program’s strong record on security is the rigorous screening process that every refugee undergoes before entering the United States. The process takes 18-24 months for each refugee from start to finish, during which the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and national intelligence agencies check refugees’ data against security databases. Less than one percent of applicants make it past the initial screening.92 Some groups of refugees, such as Syrians, undergo even more intensive security scrutiny.93 Overall, this screening process has proven to be highly effective in preventing security risks. 

Importantly, increasing refugee resettlement to the United States would not only relieve the strain on refugees and the countries they reside in, but would also advance US national security interests. A group of former national security leaders and government officials recently wrote in a letter to Congress that “resettlement initiatives help advance US national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.”94 One key way in which the program advances US security interests is by providing refuge to Iraqi citizens who served as interpreters for the US military. Without the possibility of escaping the threats that interpreters are certain to face if they stay in Iraq, it is highly unlikely that they would offer their support to the military. 

The need for increased refugee resettlement has not shown signs of dissipating. The US has historically taken the lead in providing resettlement to highly vulnerable refugees. Without that leadership, it is unlikely that the international community will be able to meet the unprecedented challenge caused by the current crisis. Moreover, restricting resettlement would likely make Americans less safe.