E.g., 11/28/2023
E.g., 11/28/2023
The U.S. Refugee Program in Transition

The U.S. Refugee Program in Transition

The United States Refugee Program (USRP) is at a crossroads, and many people would say it has been in crisis. The most obvious symptoms are a steep fall-off in refugee admissions for fiscal years (FY) 2002 and 2003 to below 29,000 annually. In comparison, actual refugee admissions for the previous five years averaged almost 76,000.

Because FY 2002 began 20 days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, observers often attribute the program's travails to the enhanced security measures introduced in response. Those measures played a role, but they were by no means the only source.

In fact, FY 2002 brought the United States to the end of several familiar elements of past refugee programs, setting the stage for a difficult transition whose dimensions were obscured by the September 11 responses. Largely gone are the massive, steady, and more predictably manageable programs that had dominated U.S. admissions since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 — the Indochinese and Soviet programs, followed for a few years by programs for those fleeing the former Yugoslavia.

For the future, refugee admissions will be characterized by the combination of many smaller-scale resettlement programs, mostly originating in difficult locations that will shift from year to year, each presenting significant and distinct policy challenges. In addition to processing and logistics, the challenges include achieving agreement among the relevant U.S. government — and often international — players on the groups and individuals who should benefit from resettlement.

Despite these challenges, several promising developments have recently taken place in the U.S. admissions program. The resettlement system is definitely changing, generating a better capacity to handle the difficulties that this new era of refugee resettlement presents. Nonetheless, progress remains measured, and clouds linger, particularly with respect to government funding.

Positive Developments

Most importantly, resettlement to the United States in FY 2004 took a major quantitative step in the right direction. According to the State Department, the U.S. admitted 52,875 refugees, an 86 percent increase over the 2003 total of 28,422. Some NGO representatives have eagerly noted that the same percentage growth in FY 2005 would bring the admissions number to 90,000, a total the Administration had targeted back in August 2001.

But clearly this growth rate cannot be sustained, even though the system now appears capable of steady, solid increases. The 2004 performance reflected the maturation of several new processes and structures put into place in the wake of the September 11 attacks — the end of a difficult shake-down period that had taken two full years.

Security checks now work much more smoothly, and proper allowances for efficient screening of this sort have now been built into the normal processing schedule. Further improvements in that realm are nearing deployment—for example, a highly automated system for notifying U.S. diplomatic posts overseas of the results of the security checks, known as security advisory opinions (SAOs), without the need for time-consuming individual cables. Changes like this are certainly welcome, but they will not bring quantum leaps in processing capacity.

In another sign that the program is regaining its footing, a State Department review found that 78 percent of those approved for resettlement in FY 2004 actually arrived in the United States within 180 days of their interview by officers of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This represents a major improvement over the repeated delays that had so hobbled the system in the preceding two years, often requiring that medical and security clearances be redone from scratch, because of the time limits on their validity.

Exceeding 50,000 admissions for FY 2004 boosted the morale of beleaguered participants in the process — both governmental and nongovernmental — and contributed to a constructive change of tone in much of the debate. The totals made clear that participants in the process can now begin to think of targeted refinements focused more clearly on refugee needs, while still working steadily to expand capacity.

The gains afford no reason to relax — the system needs to raise that 180-day arrival percentage, for example—but they provide some space for patient work to build thoughtful long-term improvements, rather than simply scrambling to add numbers.

Each year, key executive departments prepare a document for congressional consultation on the refugee program; the document is released before the coming fiscal year's "Presidential Determination," which sets the total number and allocation of refugee admissions.

The document released in advance of the FY 2005 Presidential Determination depicts increased activity to identify good candidates for group initiatives and for expanded individual access. It describes eight new P-2 groups — a priority category for access to the U.S. Refugee Program — plus four more "under active consideration for group designation."

As of March 2005, the P-2 groups who are already arriving in the United States or undergoing DHS interviews include Meskhetian Turks from Russia; a group of about 15,000 Hmong Lao from Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand; Somali Benadir, principally from Dadaab Camp in Kenya (a location that had been too dangerous for U.S. officers' circuit rides in earlier years); and specific Liberian groups from Ghana and Guinea. In addition, DHS is scheduled to begin interviews in June 2005 for approximately 2,000 Vietnamese who have resided for decades in the Philippines.

There is also new momentum in the resettlement of urban Burmese from Thailand, based on individual referrals by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And UNHCR is undertaking a detailed refugee registration in the border regions that house tens of thousands of Burmese displaced for many years, in order to lay the groundwork for developing durable solutions. Resettlement might be among those solutions, at least for select subgroups.

Other salutary initiatives from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) are also in evidence. The Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS), a key database for the refugee admissions system deployed in 2002, continues to refine its software and operations. For example, the screens used to capture crucial family data, which had drawn lingering criticism from Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) personnel who prepare potential resettlement cases for review by the U.S. government, will soon be replaced with a new and more user-friendly format.

PRM has made regular use of targeted response teams, which include NGO representatives, to examine the potential for resettlement in various refugee camps and settlements, and remains committed to this technique for identifying appropriate initiatives. Teams were sent to Uganda, Guinea, Ghana, and Mozambique during 2004 to examine possibilities for resettlement. The first three teams' findings have led or will probably lead to group referrals from UNHCR, and the fourth to an increase in individual referrals. More extensive use of this approach should be possible.

Individual referral activity has also increased, notably including in Malaysia, where UNHCR is expected to refer about 2,000 Burmese Chin for resettlement, perhaps half of them to the United States. UNHCR seems to have met its U.S. referral targets for FY 2004, exceeding 20,000. Group referrals are part of the picture, even if a more systematic UNHCR group referral procedure that was developed in detail by the Division of International Protection has not fully gotten off the ground.

And State Department security officers, working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have had real success in arranging secure sites for DHS interviewing. As a result, the pace of circuit rides — overseas visits by teams of officers who interview refugees — has picked up, and schedules have encountered fewer disruptions. PRM has also added its voice to the worldwide campaign against refugee warehousing, an issue that provided the focus for the U.S. Committee for Refugees' World Refugee Survey 2004, although with somewhat different emphasis than that favored by the NGOs.

The Department of Homeland Security is also making strides in addressing the demands of this new resettlement era. The proposed FY 2006 budget contains funds for a centralized policy planning office for the Department under a new Assistant Secretary, reporting directly to the Secretary.

Much depends on as-yet unresolved details, but DHS could use this opportunity to develop a sorely needed mechanism to ensure immigration policy coordination among the three bureaus of DHS that inherited pieces of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

At the very least, the new policy office, if it comes to pass, should help DHS avoid situations where decisions that affect the refugee program remain stalemated because the three bureaus disagree.

In the meantime, some DHS policy decisions that had been long awaited by other players in the process have finally been resolved. DHS policy guidance on the processing of various Middle Eastern refugees has now been issued, for example, meaning that cases that had waited in limbo since September 11, 2001, are now being adjudicated or readjudicated and will receive a definitive decision, up or down.

Final decisions on a permanent, speedy, and secure process for issuing employment authorization documents (EADs) for refugees have not been achieved, but a new procedure was pilot-tested in late FY 2004 with charter flights of Hmong refugees. Despite several glitches, the experience may point the way toward a better system that can deliver to refugees the most secure version of the work authorization card no later than two weeks after arrival—a timeline that remains important in order to facilitate the refugees' integration into the destination community.

Above all, DHS is moving ahead smartly with the Refugee Corps, to be staffed by roughly 90 DHS officers who will work exclusively on processing refugees for resettlement, splitting their time between Washington and overseas locations. (Processing until this point has been handled largely by staff on temporary assignments from other duties within DHS.) The establishment of an experienced group of experts in refugee processing should pay considerable dividends for decades to come.

DHS recently created a new high-level position in the Senior Executive Service, the Director of the Office of Refugee Affairs, who will oversee the Refugee Corps and international operations. That position should be filled by late summer 2005. DHS is now beginning to fill positions in the corps, and expects to achieve full staffing by the end of FY 2006.

The corps will include a policy direction group, an antifraud unit, a training and program integrity unit, and enhanced administrative support, in addition to the officers deployed to the field. When the corps is complete, circuit rides will be largely staffed by expert corps members, but the Department expects to continue using asylum officers on temporary assignment for perhaps 20 percent of a circuit ride team.

Negative Signs

Many NGO representatives were disappointed that the Presidential Determination ceiling for FY 2005 remained at 70,000, the same stated level as the past three years, and particularly that it again includes 20,000 spaces parked in an unallocated reserve.

Some see retention of the unallocated reserve as a sign of incomplete commitment to use the full resource of resettlement spaces. But this year there may have been a new reason for keeping that category: a shortage of funding.

In part, the funding shortfall reflects the higher costs entailed in resettling refugees in this more security-conscious era: roughly $3,500 per capita as compared to $2,200 in FY 2001 (counting only the State Department's component of the cost). It also reflects insufficient allowance in the 2005 budget process for reduced funding carryovers from earlier years, now that the system is coming nearer to resettlement objectives.

PRM officials have expressed some confidence that the system's processing infrastructure — from identification of groups and individuals for resettlement, through OPE processing and DHS interviews, on to travel and port-of-entry inspection — could readily handle over 60,000 refugees this fiscal year. But the funding available for resettlement is sufficient to handle only about 42,000.

Although support exists for a supplemental appropriation, the longer it takes to secure additional funding, the more difficult it will become to assure a higher level of admissions for FY 2005. It would be deeply ironic if the enormous efforts of the last two years to restore the system's capacity were to be thwarted by a lack of funds, just at the point where the system could begin treating the Presidential Determination number as a genuine target, not a remote and unattainable ceiling.

In the medium term, there are reasons for somewhat greater optimism about funding. The President's budget for FY 2006, otherwise austere, calls for spending an additional $154 million on the admission of refugees and their resettlement in the United States, permitting about 20,000 more refugees to arrive that year.

Press reports say that this against-the-tide increase in discretionary spending derives from the President's personal interest in refugee resettlement and that leading immigration restrictionists in Congress do not intend to fight this funding. Even if it passes, however, it will still yield a capacity for FY 2006 no higher than the 70,000 admissions that have marked the last several Presidential Determinations.

This is certainly not the admissions figure the program's most faithful supporters would wish for. But in the long run, it unfortunately may have to count as a real achievement if they can attain and then hold that level in the chilly budgetary winds that are likely to blow for many years.

The Future

One hopes the President will join the battle for supplemental funding of refugee admissions in FY 2005 and for a more ambitious, if measured, expansion thereafter. PRM's anti-warehousing gestures could also find practical and concrete expression in a campaign to amend the law so as to make it easier to admit long-stayers on the basis of a special Presidential designation made in the annual Presidential Determination (see Martin 2005).

In addition, DHS's protracted drive to reduce its adjudications backlog could receive a big boost if overseas refugees were admitted as lawful permanent residents from the beginning, thereby eliminating tens of thousands of adjustment applications USCIS must process each year.

And more and more asylees are stacking up against the annual ceiling of 10,000 on adjustments from asylee status to legal permanent resident status. The backlog has reached a wholly indefensible point where a new asylee can expect to wait 17 years before becoming a legal permanent resident and getting on the track for citizenship.

Whether now is an auspicious moment to seek substantive statutory changes is a much harder call. Today's Congress does not seem awash in humanitarian goodwill. It included provisions in the intelligence reform bill enacted in December 2004 that bespeak a mood of hostility and deep skepticism toward asylees, which could easily spill over onto those admitted through the resettlement program, if amendments to that program are offered.

The REAL ID Act, which passed the House in February 2005 and awaits action in the Senate at the time of writing (April 2005), carried a slightly more mixed message, however. Though it contains some ill-advised tightening of standards imposed on asylum applicants, it sweetens the package by eliminating the asylee adjustment cap (see Policy Beat for the latest on REAL ID).

Perhaps the Senate could soften the restrictions while keeping the repeal of the cap—and even find ways to add other changes that might benefit overseas refugee admissions. That seems unlikely, but Presidential leadership to attain these ends could have an enormous impact.

Refugee admissions, of course, will form only a small part of the daunting agendas awaiting the new leaders of the State Department and DHS. But their attitudes toward this vital part of America's historic mission remain critical. They can do much to boost the U.S. refugee resettlement program simply by signaling their own commitment to it, even if most of the time they must focus their attention on other issues. It remains to be seen whether they will exert sufficient leadership to realize the full promise of the hard-won progress made over the past year.


Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (2004). “Refugees: Seeking Solutions to a Global Concern: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Immigration. Border Security, and Citizenship, S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 108th Congress.” Statement of Arthur E. Dewey, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration. September 21. .

Department of Homeland Security (2005). Transcript of press conference with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Admiral James Loy on the FY 2006 Budget. Feb. 7. Available online.

Department of State (2004). “Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2004.” Press release, Oct. 4.

Department of State, Department of Homeland Security & Department of Health and Human Services (2004). “Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2005: Report to the Congress 8-9.”

Dewey, Arthur, E (2004). “Unwarehousing Refugees.” Washington Times, Sept. 10.

Hamburger, Tom, and Peter Wallsten (2005). “Refugees’ Tales Heard by Powerful Audience of One.” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 14, at 1.

Martin, David (2005). The United States Refugee Admission Program: Reforms for a New Era of Refugee Resettlement. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Refugee Council USA (2004). “Refugees: Seeking Solutions to a Global Concern: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Immigration. Border Security, and Citizenship, S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 108th Congress.” Statement of Mark Franken, Chair, Refugee Council USA. September 21.

U.S. Committee for Refugees (2004). World Refugee Survey 2004: Warehousing Issue. Available online.