E.g., 09/19/2021
E.g., 09/19/2021
Refugees and Asylees in the United States

Refugees and Asylees in the United States

Rohingya families from Myanmar arrive in Bangladesh

Rohingya families from Myanmar arrive in Bangladesh. (Photo: © UNHCR/Roger Arnold)

While the United States has historically led the world in refugee resettlement numbers, admissions fell dramatically under President Donald Trump, whose administration increased vetting procedures and reduced the number of refugees accepted annually to record lows. In 2018 the United States fell behind Canada as the top resettlement country globally. And in fiscal year (FY) 2020, the United States resettled fewer than 12,000 refugees, a far cry from the 70,000 to 80,000 resettled annually just a few years earlier and the 207,000 welcomed in 1980, the year the formal U.S. resettlement program began.

President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to reverse this trend and, after initial wavering, in early May increased the limit for resettlement of refugees in FY 2021, which runs through September, from the historically low 15,000 set by Trump to 62,500. Biden also pledged 125,000 resettlement places in FY 2022. However, the slow pace of reviving the resettlement system and other challenges in the COVID-19 era make it unlikely that the full number of slots will be filled, at least in FY 2021.

In addition to accepting refugees for resettlement, the United States also grants humanitarian protection to asylum seekers who present themselves at U.S. ports of entry or claim asylum from within the country. In FY 2019 (the most recent data available), the United States granted asylum status to about 46,500 individuals, the highest level in decades, due in part to increased asylum applications and the accelerating pace of adjudications.

Partly because refugee resettlement has been disrupted amid the pandemic, the need for humanitarian protection is as high as ever. Global displacement was estimated to have reached a record high 80 million people by mid-2020, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of these, approximately 26.3 million individuals were formally designated as refugees, 45.7 million were internally displaced persons (IDPs), 4.2 million were asylum seekers, and 3.6 million were Venezuelans displaced abroad. UNHCR has projected that more than 1.4 million refugees are in need of durable resettlement beyond their countries of first asylum.

Using the most recent data available, including 2020 and historical refugee arrival figures from the State Department and 2019 asylum data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), this Spotlight examines characteristics of the U.S. refugee and asylee populations, including top countries of origin and top states for refugee resettlement. It also provides numbers for refugees and asylees who have become lawful permanent residents (LPRs, also known as green-card holders), which refugees (but not asylees) are required to do after they have been physically present in the country for at least one year.

Note: All yearly data are for the government's fiscal year (October 1 through September 30) unless otherwise noted. The State Department's Refugee Processing Center significantly reduced the amount of available data on its website, WRAPSNet.org, on October 9, 2020, including the entire Interactive reporting module. Some publication of data was discontinued but remains available through FY 2020 on the Archives page. Migration Policy Institute (MPI) researchers downloaded the most relevant tables and reports from WRAPSNet.org before they were taken down; these data are used to analyze trends in this Spotlight.

Definitions

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 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 forced to abort a pregnancy or undergo a forced sterilization, or who have been prosecuted for their resistance to coercive population controls. Once granted U.S. protection, refugees and asylees are authorized to work and may also qualify for assistance, including cash, medical, housing, educational, and vocational services to facilitate their economic and social integration.

In the United States, the major difference between refugees and asylees is the location of the person at the time of application. Refugees are usually outside of the United States when they are screened for resettlement, whereas asylum seekers submit their applications while they are physically present in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry. Refugees and asylees also differ in admissions process used and agencies responsible for reviewing their application.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Refugee Admission Ceiling

At the beginning of each fiscal year, the president, in consultation with Congress, sets a cap on the number of refugees to be accepted from five global regions, as well as an unallocated reserve to be used 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 highest recent annual refugee admissions ceiling was 142,000 in 1993, largely a response to the Balkan wars. Since then, the annual ceiling has steadily declined, ranging from 70,000 to 91,000 between 1999 and 2016. In response to the worsening global humanitarian crisis, the Obama administration raised the admission ceiling to 85,000 in FY 2016 and 110,000 in FY 2017. Upon taking office, the Trump administration suspended the resettlement program for 120 days in 2017, slowing down admissions processing; it also deprioritized admissions of refugees from 11 "high-risk" countries for a time and later required additional screening. Refugee admissions from these countries—Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—accounted for 43 percent of all refugee resettlement in FY 2017, but fell to 3 percent in FY 2018, before rising to 6 percent in FY 2019 and 14 percent in FY 2020.

The Trump administration also reduced the FY 2017 cap set by the prior administration from 110,000 to 50,000, then continued to lower it in subsequent years to 15,000 for FY 2021. Fewer than 12,000 refugees were resettled in FY 2020. The Trump administration also deviated from the region-based formula for allocating refugee slots, instead prioritizing particular categories of individuals such as those fleeing religious persecution. The Biden administration returned to the previous regional allocation system and aims to significantly increase the number of refugees admitted to the United States.

Click here for an explainer on the changes in the U.S. immigration policy under the Trump presidency, including with regards to refugee and asylum policy.

Figure 1. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceiling and Number of Refugees Admitted to the United States, FY 1980-2021

Notes: Data on admitted refugees for fiscal year (FY) 2021 run through April 30, 2021; the FY 2017 refugee ceiling was originally 110,000 but lowered to 50,000 mid-year; the FY 2021 refugee ceiling was originally 15,000 but increased to 62,500 mid-year.

Sources: U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, “Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year,” various years; Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of State Department's Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS) data, available online.

Click here to view an interactive chart on refugee admissions over time.

Admission Process of Refugees

The U.S. refugee admissions program establishes the following processing priorities:

  • Priority 1 (P-1): Individuals referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a U.S. embassy, or certain NGOs.
  • Priority 2 (P-2): Groups of special humanitarian concern.
  • Priority 3 (P-3): Family reunification cases.

Refugees under consideration for resettlement are intensively vetted through multiple security screenings and background checks in a process that takes on average 18 to 24 months. Once refugees receive conditional approval for resettlement, they are guided through a process of medical screenings, cultural orientation, sponsorship assurances, and referral to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for transportation to the United States.

Refugee Arrivals and Countries of Origin

In FY 2020, just over 11,800 individuals arrived in the United States as refugees, the fewest since the establishment of the refugee admissions program. This represented a 61 percent decrease from the 30,000 refugees admitted in 2019 and was just 66 percent of the 18,000 placements allotted for the year. In the first seven months of FY 2021, approximately 2,300 refugees were resettled.

The geographic origins of admitted refugees have changed considerably over time (see Figure 2). In FY 2020, 35 percent of admitted refugees were from Africa, 35 percent were from Asia (including Near East/South Asia and East Asia), 22 percent were from Europe, and 8 percent were from Latin America/the Caribbean. In comparison, in FY 2010, 18 percent were from Africa, 73 percent were from Asia, 2 percent were from Europe, and 7 percent were from Latin American/the Caribbean. Overall, in the past decade, 28 percent of refugees have been from Africa, 63 percent from Asia, 5 percent from Europe, and 4 percent from Latin America/the Caribbean.

Figure 2. Regions of Origin of U.S. Refugee Arrivals, FY 2000-20

Notes: Family members granted follow-to-join refugee status are included in refugee admissions data; recipients of Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) who received refugee program reception and placement benefits are not included.

Source: MPI analysis of State Department WRAPS data.

Click here for a fact sheet on U.S. refugee resettlement.

Nationals of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Myanmar (also known as Burma), and Ukraine were the top three origin groups in FY 2020, representing 58 percent (6,900 individuals) of arrivals (see Table 1). Congolese refugees have fled armed conflict that has killed more people over several decades than any war since World War II. In Myanmar, more than 1 million Rohingya and members of other minority ethnic groups have fled severe persecution at the hands of their own government. Ukrainians have been forcibly displaced by the violent conflict between state forces and Russian-backed separatists, as well as by religious persecution. In comparison, in FY 2010, nationals of Iraq, Myanmar, and Bhutan were the top three groups, representing 64 percent (nearly 47,100) of arrivals that year.

Table 1. Top Ten Origins of Refugee Arrivals to the United States, FY 2010, FY 2020, and FY 2010-20

Source: MPI analysis of State Department WRAPS data.

Over the past decade, nationals of three countries represented more than half of all U.S. refugee admissions. Refugees from Myanmar were the largest group, at 21 percent (more than 125,100) of the almost 600,900 refugees admitted between FY 2010 and 2020. Iraqis were next at 18 percent (109,400 individuals), followed by Bhutanese refugees at 13 percent (77,400 refugees).

Latin American and Caribbean Refugees

Refugee admissions through  resettlement programs from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have been consistently low despite high need for humanitarian protections. But changing migration policies and sociopolitical contexts may allow more refugees from this region in future years.

Historically, Cubans have been the largest refugee group from the region, likely due to their ability since 1987 to be processed for refugee status from within their country of origin, as well as other special considerations for those fleeing Cuba’s Communist regime. Between FY 2010 and FY 2020, 75 percent of LAC admissions were from Cuba (see Figure 3). However, the numbers have fallen dramatically since FY 2015, when the United States and Cuba began normalizing relations. In FY 2010, 97 percent of LAC refugees were Cuban, but that number was less than 1 percent in FY 2020.

Figure 3. Top Nationalities of Latin American and Caribbean Refugees Admitted to the United States, FY 2010-20

Source: MPI analysis of State Department WRAPS data.

Colombians, who have fled more than 50 years of armed conflict, represented 23 percent of all LAC refugees in FY 2020 and 10 percent in the decade since FY 2010.

Venezuelans have the potential to be among the top refugee-origin groups in coming years. Political and economic crises have driven more than 5 million people from Venezuela since 2015, the vast majority relocating to neighboring countries, primarily Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Brazil. The United States has admitted just 30 Venezuelan refugees since FY 2010, but given the size and scale of the crisis and this special designation, it is likely that these numbers will increase (several thousand Venezuelans have been granted humanitarian protection as asylees, as discussed below). Meanwhile, DHS in March granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to eligible Venezuelans residing in the United States. An estimated 323,000 Venezuelans could apply for TPS, which would grant them permission to remain and work in the country for 18 months.

Top Refugee-Receiving States

In FY 2020, refugees’ top initial resettlement destinations were California (10 percent, or 1,190 individuals), Washington (9 percent, or 1,110 refugees), and Texas (8 percent, or 900 individuals). Other major receiving states included New York (5 percent, or 620 individuals) and 4 percent for each of the following states: Michigan (490), Kentucky (470), North Carolina (470), Pennsylvania (440), Arizona (430), and Ohio (430). Fifty-five percent of all refugees resettled during the period were in one of these ten states.

This trend is roughly consistent with prior years. During the last decade, five states—Texas, California, New York, Michigan, and Arizona—received one-third of the 601,000 refugees resettled nationwide (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Refugee Arrivals by Initial U.S. State of Residence, FY 2010-20

Note: Data do not account for refugees’ movement between states after their initial resettlement.

Source: MPI analysis of State Department WRAPS data.

States also differ quite significantly by resettled refugees’ countries of origin. For example, although refugees from Myanmar have been the largest group admitted to the United States since FY 2010, they were the top group in just 19 states. Eight states, including California and Michigan, resettled more Iraqis than any other nationality over the past decade, while Florida and New Jersey received more Cuban refugees than any other group. Ukrainians were the top group only in Washington state (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Largest Refugee Nationality by U.S. State of Initial Resettlement, FY 2010-20

Note: Data do not account for refugees’ movement between states after their initial resettlement.

Source: MPI analysis of State Department WRAPS data.

Arriving refugees are placed in communities based on factors including their needs, family ties, and the receiving community’s language and health-care services, housing availability, educational and job opportunities, and cost of living. Since 2015, some states and localities have become increasingly vocal about having greater input in the resettlement process, citing concerns such as limited federal funding, use of local resources, and potential national-security threats. President Trump tried to require states to opt into the refugee resettlement program, but his executive order was blocked by a federal court.

Religions of Refugees

Overall, the United States admitted more Christian refugees in the past decade than those of any other religion. Between FY 2010 and FY 2020, Christians represented 48 percent (286,000) of the 600,500 refugees with known religious affiliation. The share of Christians among all refugees was much higher for some nationalities, including some of most common groups. For instance, 95 percent of all refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 85 percent from Eritrea, 70 percent from Myanmar, and 50 percent from Iran reported being Christians.

During the same period, 33 percent (200,600) of all refugees admitted to the United States were Muslim. Virtually all refugees from Somalia and Syria were Muslim, as were 67 percent of refugees from Iraq.

FY 2016 marked the only time since 2010 when the United States resettled more Muslim refugees (46 percent, or 38,900 individuals) than Christians (44 percent, or 37,500 individuals) (see Figure 6). The Trump administration’s restrictions on admissions of nationals of some mostly Muslim countries, additional vetting procedures, and historically low admissions ceilings substantially affected the proportion of resettled Muslim and Christian refugees.

Figure 6. Religions of Refugees Admitted to the United States, FY 2010-20

Source: MPI analysis of State Department WRAPS data.

Age and Gender of Refugees

The U.S. refugee resettlement program focuses on admitting the most vulnerable populations and those believed to have the best prospects for long-term integration. Individuals with critical medical conditions or disabilities, and families with young children are typically prioritized for resettlement. Between FY 2010 and FY 2020, 64 percent of all refugees admitted to the United States were children under age 14 and women (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Age and Gender of Refugees Admitted to the United States, FY 2010-20

Source: MPI analysis of State Department WRAPS data.

Asylees

In FY 2019 (the most recent data available), 46,500 persons were granted asylum either affirmatively or defensively, a 24 percent increase from the nearly 37,600 who received asylum in 2018, according to the DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Of these, 59 percent (more than 27,600 individuals) were granted asylum affirmatively, while the remaining 41 percent, or nearly 18,900 individuals, were granted asylum defensively. (See Box for explanation of the differences between affirmative and defensive asylum.

Affirmative vs. Defensive Asylum

An individual seeking entry with a visa or already present in the United States may decide to submit an asylum request through the affirmative process with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). However, if a foreign national has no lawful means of entering the country and asks for asylum, or if he or she is apprehended as an unauthorized migrant and an asylum request is filed, the case is adjudicated in immigration court, as part of a defensive application. For both defensive and affirmative applications, the person is obligated to file for asylum within one year of entering the country.

During an affirmative asylum interview, an asylum officer will determine whether the applicant meets the definition of a refugee. An asylum application may be approved, denied, or sent to the courts for further review. If a claim is denied in immigration court, an applicant may appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals or, in some cases, the federal courts.

Additionally, more than 9,600 individuals who resided both outside (6,300) and inside (approximately 3,300) the United States were approved for derivative status as immediate family members of principal asylum applicants. (Note: This reflects the number of travel documents issued to family members residing abroad, not their actual arrival to the United States.)

Nationals of China, Venezuela, and El Salvador accounted for nearly 38 percent (17,500) of those granted affirmative or defensive asylum status in 2019 (see Table 2). Nationals from three Central American countries—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—combined represented more than 16 percent of all asylum grants in 2019, compared to just 4 percent in 2010. A significant number of applications are still under review due to processing backlogs.

Table 2. Affirmative, Defensive, and Total Grants of Asylum by Nationality, FY 2019

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics, 2019 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, available online.

Since FY 2010, more than 275,000 people have been granted asylum. Nationals of China were by far the largest group, accounting for more than one-quarter of all asylum grants during the decade.

Click here for a report on the state of the U.S. asylum system and the impact of flows from Central America.

Adjustment to Lawful Permanent Resident Status

In FY 2019, 106,900 refugees and asylees adjusted their status to lawful permanent residence (aka getting a green card), of whom 80,900 (76 percent) were refugees and 26,000 (24 percent), were asylees (see Figure 8).

Figure 8. Refugees and Asylees Granted U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence, FY 2000-19

Source: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, various years, available online.

Refugees must apply for a green card one year after being admitted to the United States. Asylees become eligible to adjust to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status after one year of residence but are not required to do so. As LPRs, refugees and asylees are eligible to receive federal student financial aid, join certain branches of the U.S. armed forces, and return from international travel without a U.S. entry visa. They generally may also apply for U.S. citizenship five years after being admitted.

Until 2005, there had been an annual limit of 10,000 on the number of asylees authorized to adjust to LPR status. The REAL ID Act eliminated that cap. No annual limit exists on the number of refugees eligible to adjust to LPR status.

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