Refugees and Asylees in the United States
Refugees and Asylees in the United States
More than 87,000 people were resettled as refugees in the United States or were granted asylum status during 2012, with grants of asylum up 19 percent and refugee admissions up 3 percent from 2011. 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 (see Definitions box). This Spotlight examines the data on persons admitted to the United States as refugees and those granted asylum in 2012. It also provides the number of refugees and asylees who received lawful permanent resident (LPR) status in 2012.
The data come from several publications from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS): the 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the 2012 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and Asylees, and the 2012Annual Flow Report on US Legal Permanent Residents.
Note: All yearly data are for the government's fiscal year (October 1 through September 30).
- 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.
- Aliens seeking asylum in the United States can submit an asylum request either affirmatively (when they first reach a U.S. port of entry) or defensively (during removal proceedings from the United States).
- Refugees must apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status one year after being admitted to the United States.
- The total number of refugees authorized for admission in 2012 was 76,000, down from the 80,000 level approved from 2008 to 2011.
- The actual number arriving in the United States during 2012 through the resettlement program was 58,179
- Nationals of Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq accounted for more than 70 percent of refugee arrivals to the United States in 2012.
- In recent years, Burmese have made up the largest share of refugees resettled in the United States.
- Texas and California received the largest numbers of resettled refugees, taking in almost one-fifth of those resettled in the United States in 2012.
- In 2012, 47 percent of refugee arrivals were principal applicants; the remainder were the spouse or children of the principal applicant.
- Nearly 30,000 individuals were granted asylum in 2012.
- Nearly half of the foreigners who obtained U.S. asylum in 2012 were from China, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
Adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Status Data
- More than 150,000 refugees and asylees adjusted to LPR status in 2012.
- More than two-thirds of those gaining green cards under the humanitarian stream in 2012 were refugees.
Refugees and asylees are individuals 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 eligible for protection in large part based on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act expanded this definition to include persons who have been forced to abort a pregnancy, undergo a forced sterilization, or have been prosecuted for their resistance to coercive population controls.
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).
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 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 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.
People may also be eligible to derive asylum status as spouses or children (unmarried and under 21) of the principal asylees either at the time of asylum application or at a later time as long as the asylum application has been approved, the status has not been revoked, and the relationship of the principal applicant to his/her family members has not changed since the time of the case approval.
By law, refugees are required to apply for LPR status after an aggregate period of one year of physical presence in the United States. Asylees become eligible to adjust to LPR status also after one year of physical residence in the country. 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 may apply for U.S. citizenship five years after being admitted as a refugee.
Until 2005, there was an annual limit of 10,000 on the number of asylees authorized to adjust to LPR status. 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.
The total number of refugees authorized for admission in 2012 was 76,000, down from the 80,000 level approved from 2008 to 2011.
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, 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.
Before 2012, the admission ceiling for refugees had not been revised since 2008 when it was set at 80,000, increasing from the cap of 70,000 established in 2002 and maintained through 2007. In 2008, the ceiling was raised by 10,000 in response to an expected increase in refugee resettlement from Iraq, Iran, and Bhutan.
The 76,000 worldwide ceiling for 2012 is further broken down into regional caps: 35,500 resettlement places for refugees from the Near East and South Asia (no change from 2011); 18,000 from East Asia (down 1,000); 12,000 from Africa (down 3,000); 5,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean (no change from 2011); and 2,000 from Europe and Central Asia (no change from 2011). There was no change in the unallocated reserve of 3,000 resettlement places from 2011.
In 2012, 58,179 individuals arrived in the United States as refugees. This number increased 3 percent from the number of refugees who resettled in 2011 (56,384), but was down 21 percent from the 2010 total (73,293), and 22 percent from the 2009 total (74,602) (see Figure 2).
Note: Eligible family members who are granted follow-to-join refugee status are included in the refugee admissions data. The asylees data show them separately.
There has been a significant decline in the number of refugees from Iran, Vietnam, and Burundi in the past few years. Iranians accounted for close to 3 percent (1,758) of refugee arrivals in 2012, compared to 5 percent (3,543) in 2010 and 7 percent (5,381) in 2009. From 2003 to 2010, the number of Vietnamese refugees was relatively steady, averaging 3 percent of the total per year, but totaled just 79 (0.1 percent) in 2011 and 41 (.07 percent) in 2012. Likewise, refugees from Burundi, whose totals spiked sharply in 2007 (4,545, or 9 percent) and 2008 (2,889, or 5 percent), have rapidly declined to just 186 (0.3 percent of refugees admitted in 2012).
In recent years, Burmese have made up the largest share of refugees resettled in the United States.
In the past decade, Burmese have been the largest group of refugees resettled to the United States with 102,380 (or 19 percent) of the 546,741 refugees resettled since 2003. The next two groups are Iraqis (14 percent, or 74,599) and Somalis (11 percent, or 62,724). Despite making up the largest share of refugees resettled in the United States, Burmese refugees made up the second largest group in 2012 (after Bhutanese), as well as in 2009 and 2010 (after Iraqi nationals).
Texas and California received the largest numbers of resettled refugees, taking in almost one-fifth of those resettled in the United States in 2012.
In 2012, as in the prior year, the largest shares of refugees arriving in the United States were resettled in Texas (10 percent, or 5,905 persons) and California (9 percent, or 5,167). Relatively large shares of refugees were also resettled in New York (6 percent, or 3,525), Pennsylvania (5 percent, or 2,809), Florida (4 percent, or 2,244), and Georgia (4 percent, or 2,516). Thirty-eight percent of all refugees were resettled in these top six states (see Figure 4).
In 2012, nearly 50 percent of refugee arrivals were principal applicants.
In 2012, 47 percent of refugee arrivals, or 27,355 individuals, were principal applicants. As a group, these principal applicants were accompanied by 21,292 dependent children (37 percent of all arrivals) and 9,532 spouses (16 percent of all arrivals).
The number of individuals granted asylum in the United States reached nearly 30,000 in 2012.
In 2012, 29,484 persons were granted asylum either affirmatively or defensively. This represents a 19 percent increase versus 24,873 in 2011, making the numbers of asylum grants the highest they have been since 2002 (36,937).
Of all the individuals granted asylum in 2012, 59 percent (17,506) were granted asylum affirmatively, while 41 percent (11,978) were granted asylum defensively.
An additional 13,049 individuals who resided outside of the United States were approved for derivative follow-to-join status as immediate family members of principal applicants. Note that this number reflects travel documents issued to these family members, not their arrival to the United States. In addition, 1,028 individuals were approved for derivative asylum status while residing in the United States.
Nearly half of persons who obtained U.S. asylum in 2012 were nationals of China, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
Asylees from the top three countries of origin for asylum seekers—China, Egypt, and Ethiopia—made up 48 percent (or 14,155) of all asylees in 2012 (see Table 2). At the same time, the number of Colombian asylees, the second largest group of asylees in 2008 and fourth largest in 2009, has declined significantly from 1,660 in 2008 to 471 in 2012.
More specifically, 10,151 persons from China received asylum in 2012, accounting for 34 percent of those who received asylum that year. The next four largest origin groups were from Egypt (2,882), Ethiopia (1,122), Venezuela (1,099), and Nepal (974), accounting for another 21 percent. Together, nationals of these five countries made up over half of all individuals who received asylum status in 2012.
Adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Status Data
More than 150,000 refugees and asylees adjusted to LPR status in 2012.
In 2012, 150,614 refugees and asylees adjusted their status to obtain lawful permanent residence (also known as getting a green card)—an 11 percent decrease from 2011 (168,460) and a 30 percent decline compared to 2006 (216,454), the highest point since 1995 (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Refugees and Asylees Granted Lawful Permanent Residence, FY 1995 to 2012
More than two-thirds of refugee/asylee LPR status adjusters in 2012 were refugees.
Of the 150,614 refugees and asylees who adjusted their status to LPR in 2012, 70 percent (or 105,528) were refugees and 30 percent (or 45,086) were asylees.
Note: Refugees must apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status one year after being admitted to the United States, whereas asylees are not required to do so although they are eligible.