E.g., 12/06/2023
E.g., 12/06/2023
Refugees and Asylees in the United States

Refugees and Asylees in the United States

spot jan14 500

Refugees are greeted at the airport as they arrive in the United States. (Photo: International Rescue Committee in San Diego)

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 receive permission to resettle in the United States while they are abroad. Section 207(c) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) grants the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to admit at its discretion any refugee who is not firmly resettled in a third country and is determined to be of special humanitarian concern and admissible to the United States. The admissions process differs based on where the case falls in the U.S. refugee admissions program’s three-tiered priorities schedule (individual, group, or family reunification). Priority 1 (P-1) cases—individual refugee cases—are people who are outside their country of nationality and by virtue of their circumstances have an apparent need for resettlement. Individual refugee cases are identified and referred to the U.S. resettlement program by the UNHCR, a U.S. embassy, or a designated NGO. The State Department's Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) contracts nongovernmental agencies to manage Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) to assist in the processing of these cases for admission to the United States. An RSC determines an applicant’s preliminary eligibility for resettlement and assists him or her in completing documentary requirements and scheduling interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is a DHS agency. USCIS conducts nonadversarial interviews with refugee resettlement applicants, runs background checks on them, and considers evidence about the conditions in their country of origin in order to decide whether to grant conditional approval for resettlement. RSC staff guide applicants who have received conditional approval for resettlement through the post-adjudication process, which includes medical screenings, cultural orientation, sponsorship assurances, and referral to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for transportation.

Priority 2 (P-2) cases—specific groups designated as having access to the program by viture of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement—are processed for resettlement in their country of origin. The PRM coordinates all group referrals to the refugee admissions program. The Priority 3 (P-3) cases are designated as such for being applications filed by someone from a nationality that is of special humanitarian concern to the United States for family reunification purposes. P-3 applicants have an immediate family member in the United States who entered the country as a refugee or were granted asylum there. Spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of a U.S. based anchor might qualify for P-3 refugee admission, though in certain circumstances other members of the household may qualify. Due to a high incidence of fraud in claimed family relationships, the P-3 processing program was suspended for a time and was resumed in October 2013 only after significant changes were made to it.

Refugees admitted to the United States for resettlement are eligible for lawful employment and resettlement services. Depending on the individual or household’s needs and the length of time that has passed since their arrival, refugees may qualify to receive certain cash, medical, housing, educational, and vocational support services. After one year of residency in the United States, a refugee is required to apply to USCIS adjust their immigration status to lawful permanent resident. Five years after admission, refugees who were been granted lawful permanent resident status are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. If the refugee has become separated from his or her family, once in the United States and within two years of admission, he or she may complete a Form-I730 Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition to USCIS for follow-to-join benefits for his or her spouse or unmarried children below age 21.

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.


Refugee Data

Asylee Data

Adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Status Data


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).

Back to the top

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.

Back to the top


Refugees must apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status one year after being admitted to the United States.

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.

Back to the top


Refugee Data

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.


Figure 1. U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings, 1980 to 2012
Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

The actual number arriving in the United States during 2012 through the resettlement program was 58,179

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.


Figure 2. Refugee Admission to the United States through the Resettlement Program by Region of Nationality, 2003 to 2012
* All of the refugees from North America were from Cuba (e.g., 1,948 in 2012). 
** 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, Department of State. Any comparison of refugee arrival data prior to 1996 must be made with caution. 
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and 2012 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and AsyleesAvailable online.
Nationals of Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq accounted for more than 70 percent of refugee arrivals to the United States in 2012. 
Nationals of Bhutan, Burma, and Iraq represented 71 percent of refugee resettlements in 2012, with 41,393 individuals admissions from those three countries(see Table 1). Rounding out the top ten were: Somalia, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Altogether, nationals of these ten countries totaled 54,916 individuals, or more than 94 percent of all refugee arrivals in 2012. The top three countries of origin for refugee arrivals have remained the same since 2009.

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).

Table 1. Top Ten Origin Countries of Refugee Arrivals, 2010 to 2012
2012 2011 2010
Country Number Percent Country Number Percent Country Number Percent
Bhutan 15,070 25.9 Burma 16,972 30.1 Iraq 18,016 24.6
Burma 14,160 24.3 Bhutan 14,999 26.6 Burma 16,693 22.8
Iraq 12,163 20.9 Iraq 9,388 16.7 Bhutan 12,363 16.9
Somalia 4,911 8.4 Somalia 3,161 5.6 Somalia 4,884 6.7
Cuba 1,948 3.3 Cuba 2,920 5.2 Cuba 4,818 6.6
Congo, Democratic Republic 1,863 3.2 Eritrea 2,032 3.6 Iran 3,543 4.8
Iran 1,758 3.0 Iran 2,032 3.6 Congo, Democratic Republic 3,174 4.3
Eritrea 1,346 2.3 Congo, Democratic Republic 977 1.7 Eritrea 2,570 3.5
Sudan 1,077 1.9 Ethiopia 560 1.0 Vietnam 873 1.2
Ethiopia 620 1.1 Afghanistan* 428 0.8 Ethiopia 668 0.9
All other countries, including unknown 3,263 5.6 All other countries, including unknown 2,915 5.2 All other countries, including unknown 5,691 7.8
  58,179 100.0   56,384 100.0 Total 73,293 100.0
* There were also 428 refugee arrivals from Ukraine in 2011. 
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and 2012 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and Asylees. Available Online (http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/yearbook.shtm).

Back to the top


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).


Figure 3. Admitted Burmese and Non-Burmese Refugees FY 2002 to FY 2012 (thousands)
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and 2012 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and AsyleesAvailable Online.

Back to the top


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).


Figure 4. Refugee Arrivals by Initial State of Residence, 2012
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and 2012 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and AsyleesAvailable Online.

Back to the top


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).

Back to the top


Asylee Data

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.

Back to the top


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.

Table 2. Affirmative, Defensive, and Total Asylees by Country of Origin, 2012
Country Affirmative Country Defensive Country Total Asylees
  Number Percent   Number Percent   Number Percent
China, PRC 4,768 27.2 China, PRC 5,383 44.9 China, PRC 10,151 34.4
Egypt 2,576 14.7 Ethiopia 458 3.8 Egypt 2,882 9.8
Venezuela 969 5.5 Nepal 403 3.4 Ethiopia 1,122 3.8
Ethiopia 664 3.8 Eritrea 351 2.9 Venezuela 1,099 3.7
Haiti 633 3.6 Egypt 306 2.6 Nepal 974 3.3
Iran 607 3.5 India 282 2.4 Russia 728 2.5
Nepal 571 3.3 Soviet Union, former 281 2.3 Iran 716 2.4
Russia 552 3.2 Guatemala 222 1.9 Haiti 682 2.3
Colombia 340 1.9 El Salvador 191 1.6 Guatemala 536 1.8
Mexico 337 1.9 Pakistan 191 1.6 Eritrea 472 1.6
All other countries, including unknown 5,489 31.4 All other countries, including unknown 3,910 32.6 All other countries, including unknown 10,122 34.3
Total 17,506 100.0 Total 11,978 100.0 Total 29,484 100.0
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and 2012 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and AsyleesAvailable Online.

Back to the top


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
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and 2012 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and AsyleesAvailable Online.

Back to the top


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.


Back to the top