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Refugees and Asylees in the United States

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Refugees and Asylees in the United States

Refugees from Burma such as these teenage girls made up nearly 23 percent of all refugee arrivals to the United States in 2010.

Source Spotlights are often updated as new data become available. Please click here to find the most recent version of this Spotlight.

For many people in repressive, autocratic, or conflict-embroiled nations, migration is a means of survival. Refugees and asylees seek protection in another country — whether neighboring or distant, familiar or foreign — in order to escape persecution based on their beliefs, personal attributes, or membership in a certain group.

The United States grants humanitarian protection on a limited basis to refugees and asylees from diverse countries throughout the world. This Spotlight examines the data on persons admitted to the United States as refugees and those granted asylum in 2010. It also provides the number of refugees and asylees who received lawful permanent resident (LPR) status in 2010.

The data come from the 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the 2010 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and Asylees, and the 2010 Annual Flow Report on U.S. Legal Permanent Residents, published by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).

Note: All yearly data is for the government's fiscal year, which is from October 1 through September 30.

Click on the bullet points below for more information.


Refugee Data

Asylee Data

Adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Status Data


Refugees: Refugees receive permission to immigrate to the United States while they are still abroad. The State Department's Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) contracts nongovernmental agencies, referred to as Overseas Processing Entities (OPE) to conduct prescreening interviews and prepare applications of prospective refugees. The applications are then submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which runs background checks, interviews individuals, and determines whether an individual is approved for resettlement.


Once approved, a principal applicant, either alone or with his or her close family (spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21), is eligible to come to the United States through the refugee resettlement program. USCIS collects data on refugees three times: when their applications are submitted abroad through OPE or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), when they arrive in the United States for resettlement, and when they adjust their status to LPR.

Refugees resettled in the United States are automatically eligible to work and to receive public aid cash assistance and medical assistance for up to eight months as an individual and up to five years as a family.

Asylees: According to the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 and based on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, any alien who is physically present in the country or at a port of entry may apply for asylum, regardless of his or her current immigration status. Asylum is granted after an individual's application has been processed and approved. A person who is granted asylum is entitled to a social security card, employment authorization, and other assistance.

Annual limits on admission: Each fiscal year the president of the United States, in consultation with Congress, determines the number of refugees to be admitted to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. No such cap exists, however, on the number of asylum applications or approvals for asylum.

Note: The Refugee Act of 1980 went into effect April 1, 1980.


Refugees and asylees are aliens who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin or nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.
Refugees and asylees are similar in that they are aliens who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin or nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion.

In the United States, the main difference between refugees and asylees is the location of the person at the time of application. Refugees are generally outside of the United States when they are considered for resettlement, whereas asylum seekers submit their applications while they are physically present in or at a port of entry to the United States.

Concurrently, refugees and asylees also differ in the way they are treated by immigration and refugee law at the time of application and admission (see sidebar).

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Aliens seeking asylum in the United States can submit an asylum request either affirmatively or defensively.
An asylum seeker present in the United States may decide to submit an asylum request either with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer voluntarily at a time of their own choosing (affirmative request), or, if apprehended, with an immigration judge as part of a removal hearing (defensive request). During the interview, an asylum officer will determine whether the applicant meets the definition of a refugee.

If the case is denied, an applicant may appeal for additional hearings with the Board of Immigration Appeals or, in some cases, with federal courts.

Aliens may also request asylum at the port of entry (POE) by informing an inspection officer that he or she is fleeing persecution or seeking asylum. The individual is then referred to an asylum officer for a credible fear interview to determine if he or she has a verifiable fear of persecution. If the claim for asylum is verified, the case is referred to an immigration judge and the individual is placed in nonexpedited removal proceedings. If the claim is denied, the individual is subject to removal.

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Both refugees and asylees are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status after one year of continuous presence in the United States as a refugee or asylee.
As lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees have the right to own property, attend public schools, join certain branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, travel internationally without a visa, and, if certain requirements are met, apply for U.S. citizenship.

Until 2005, there was an annual limit of 10,000 on the number of asylees who were authorized to adjust their status to LPR. The implementation of the REAL ID Act eliminated that cap. No annual limit has since existed on the number of refugees eligible to adjust to LPR status.

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Refugee Data

Since 2008, the annual ceiling for the number of refugees admitted to the United States has remained at 80,000.
The number of persons who may be admitted to the United States as refugees each year is established by the president in consultation with Congress. At the beginning of each fiscal year (during the month of October), the president sets the number of refugees to be accepted from five global regions, as well as an “unallocated reserve” if a country goes to war or more refugees need to be admitted regionally. In the case of an unforeseen emergency, the total and regional allocations may be adjusted.

The last time the admission ceiling for refugees was revised was in 2008 when it was set at 80,000, substantially higher than the ceiling of 70,000 established in 2002 and maintained through 2007. The ceiling was raised by 10,000 in response to an expected increase in refugee resettlement from Iraq, Iran, and Bhutan. However, the current ceiling is 65 percent lower than the 1980 ceiling of 231,700. (see Figure 1).

The 80,000 worldwide ceiling for 2010 is further broken down into regional caps: 15,500 from Africa (up by 3,500 compared to 2009), 18,000 from East Asia (down by 2,500), 2,500 from Europe and Central Asia (no change from 2009), 5,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean (no change), and 38,000 from Near East and South Asia (down by 1,500); 500 were unallocated reserve (compared to 0 in 2009 and 8,000 in 2008).



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Over 73,000 refugees arrived in the United States through the resettlement program in 2010.
In 2010, 73,293 individuals arrived in the United States as refugees. This figure reveals a slight decline of 1.8 percent from the number of refugees who resettled in 2009 (74,602), but is an increase of 21.9 percent from 2008 when 60,108 refugees and their family members resettled in the country (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. Refugee Admission to the United States through the Resettlement Program by Region of Nationality, 2001 to 2010
Note: Prior to 1996, refugee arrival data were derived from the Nonimmigrant Information System of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Beginning in fiscal year 1996, arrival data for all years are from the Bureau for Refugee Programs (BRP), Department of State. Any comparison of refugee arrival data prior to 1996 must be made with caution.
Source: 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and 2010 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and Asylees. Available Online.


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Nationals of Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan made up almost two-thirds of refugee arrivals to the United States in 2010.
Nationals of Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan represented 64.2 percent of refugee resettlements in 2010, with 47,072 individuals admitted (see Table 1). In addition to these top three, the top ten countries of origin for refugee resettlements in 2010 included Somalia, Cuba, Iran, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. Altogether, nationals of these ten countries totaled 67,602 individuals, or 92.2 percent of all refugee arrivals in 2010.

Though the number of refugees arriving from the top three countries (Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan) has stayed relatively similar to 2009 levels, there have been some changes since 2008. At that time, refugees from Burma made up 30.2 percent of all refugees (compared to 22.8 percent in 2010) and refugees from Bhutan made up 8.9 percent of all refugees (compared to 16.9 percent in 2010 — nearly double that share).

There has also been a large decline in the number of refugees from Iran since 2008, while the numbers of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Eritrea have seen sharp increases. Persons from Iran accounted for 4.8 percent of refugee arrivals in 2010, compared to 8.8 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have increased more than four-fold since 2008 (727 in 2008, compared to 3,174 in 2010), and arrivals from Eritrea have increased more than ten-fold since 2008 (251 in 2008, compared to 2,570 in 2010).

Table 1. Top Ten Origin Countries of Refugee Arrivals, 2008 to 2010
2010 2009 2008
CountryNumberPercent CountryNumberPercent CountryNumberPercent
Iraq18,01624.6 Iraq18,83825.3 Burma18,13930.2
Burma16,69322.8 Burma18,20224.4 Iraq13,82223.0
Bhutan12,36316.9 Bhutan13,45218.0 Bhutan5,3208.9
Somalia4,8846.7 Iran5,3817.2 Iran5,2708.8
Cuba4,8186.6 Cuba4,8006.4 Cuba4,1776.9
Iran3,5434.8 Somalia4,1895.6 Burundi2,8894.8
Congo, Dem. R.3,1744.3 Eritrea1,5712.1 Somalia2,5234.2
Eritrea2,5703.5 Vietnam1,4862.0 Vietnam1,1121.9
Vietnam8731.2 Congo, Dem. R.1,1351.5 Ukraine1,0221.7
Ethiopia6680.9 Burundi7621.0 Liberia9921.7
All other countries, including unknown5,6917.8 All other countries, including unknown4,7866.4 All other countries, including unknown4,8418.1
Total73,293100.0 Total74,602100.0 Total60,107100.0
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Refugees and Asylees Tables. Available Online.


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In recent years, Iraqis have made up the largest share of refugees resettled in the United States.
Iraqis are the largest group of refugees resettled to the United States. Though Iraqi refugees made up the second largest group in 2008 (after Burmese nationals), in 2009 and 2010 Iraq was the leading sending country of refugees resettled in the United States.



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California and Texas received the largest numbers of resettled refugees, taking in more than one-fifth of resettled refugees in the United States.
In 2010, the largest shares of refugees arriving in the United States were resettled in California (11.7 percent of all refugees, or 8,577 persons) and Texas (10.8 percent, or 7,918). Relatively large shares of refugees were also resettled in New York (6.2 percent, or 4,559), Florida (5.8 percent, or 4,216), Arizona (4.6 percent, or 3,400), and Georgia (4.4 percent, or 3,224). Nearly 44 percent of all refugees were resettled in these top six states (see Figure 4).

In 2009, the top six states were California (15.1 percent, or 11,274), Texas (11.0 percent, or 8,195), New York (5.9 percent, or 4,411), Arizona (5.8 percent, or 4,312), Florida (5.6 percent, or 4,193), and Michigan (4.7 percent, or 3,500), together taking in 48.1 percent of all refugee arrivals.


Figure 4. Refugee Arrivals by Initial State of Residence, 2010
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Refugees and Asylees Tables. Available Online.


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In 2010, 44 percent of refugee arrivals were principal applicants.
A full 44.0 percent of refugee arrivals, or 32,251 individuals, were principal applicants in 2010. As a group, these principal applicants were accompanied by 28,207 dependent children (38.5 percent of all arrivals) and 12,835 spouses (17.5 percent of all arrivals).

Similarly, 43.6 percent of refugees (32,511) were principal applicants, 38.4 percent (28,651) were children, and 18.0 percent (13,440) were spouses in 2009.

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Asylee Data

Over 21,000 individuals were granted asylum in 2010, reflecting a slight downward trend since 2008.
In 2010, 21,113 principal applicants and their immediate family members were granted asylum. This is a 4.4 percent decrease from the number of people granted asylum in 2009 (22,090) and a 7.5 percent decrease from 2008 (22,832).

Of all the individuals granted asylum in 2010, 53.3 percent (11,244) were granted asylum affirmatively, while 46.7 percent (9,869) were granted asylum defensively.

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Two in five foreigners who obtained U.S. asylum in 2010 were from China, Ethiopia, and Haiti.
Asylees from the top three countries of origin for asylum seekers — China, Ethiopia, and Haiti — made up 40.8 percent (or 8,608) of all asylees in 2010 (see Table 2). At the same time, the number of Colombian asylees, the second largest group of asylees in 2008, has declined dramatically from 1,646 in 2008 to 591 in 2010.

More specifically, 6,683 persons from the People's Republic of China received asylum in 2010, accounting for 31.7 percent of all individuals who received asylum that year. The next four largest origin groups were Ethiopia (1,093), Haiti (832), Venezuela (660), and Nepal (640), accounting for another 15.3 percent. Together, nationals of these five countries plus Colombia (591) and Russia (548) made up over half of all individuals who received asylum status in 2010.

Table 2. Affirmative, Defensive, and Total Asylees by Country of Origin, 2010
CountryAffirmative Asylees CountryDefensive Asylees CountryAll Asylees
 NumberPercent  NumberPercent  NumberPercent
China, PRC2,88825.7 China, PRC3,79538.5 China, PRC6,68331.7
Ethiopia6866.1 Ethiopia4074.1 Ethiopia1,0935.2
Haiti6655.9 India2412.4 Haiti8323.9
Venezuela4794.3 Colombia2342.4 Venezuela6603.1
Nepal4103.6 Nepal2302.3 Nepal6403.0
Iran4023.6 Egypt2162.2 Colombia5912.8
Russia3893.5 Somalia2082.1 Russia5482.6
Colombia3573.2 Armenia2062.1 Egypt5362.5
Egypt3202.8 Cameroon1962.0 Iran4852.3
Guatemala2992.7 Guinea1861.9 Guatemala4652.2
All other countries, including unknown4,34938.7 All other countries, including unknown3,95040.0 All other countries, including unknown8,58040.6
Total11,244100.0 Total9,869100.0 Total21,113100.0
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Refugees and Asylees Tables. Available Online.


Adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Status Data


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Over 136,000 refugees and asylees adjusted to LPR status in 2010.
In 2010, 136,291 refugees and asylees adjusted their status to obtain lawful permanent residence, a 23.2 percent decrease from 2009 (177,368) and a 37.0 percent decline compared to 2006 (216,454), the highest point since 1995 (see Figure 5).



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More than two-thirds of refugee/asylee LPR status adjusters in 2010 were refugees.
Of the 136,291 refugees and asylees who adjusted their status to LPR in 2010, 68.0 percent (or 92,741) were refugees and 32.0 percent (or 43,550) were asylees.

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Additional Resources

Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2010, Refugees and Asylees Tables. Available Online.

Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2010, Legal Permanent Residents Tables. Available Online.

Kelly O'Donnell and Kathleen Newland. The Iraqi Refugee Crisis: The Need for Action (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2008). Available Online.

Definitions of terms can be found at the website of the Office of Immigration Statistics. Available Online.

Office of Refugee Resettlement

UNHCR Country Profile: Iraq. Available Online.

Further MPI resources

MPI's recent report, The Faltering U.S. Refugee Protection System: Legal and Policy Responses to Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Others in Need of Protection. Available Online.

Discussion on the Situation of Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador. Available Online.

MPI Leadership Visions: United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff. Available Online.

Potential Reforms to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Available Online.