Despite Increasingly Diverse Origins, Linguistic Backgrounds and Education Levels, New Report Finds Most Refugees in U.S. Integrate Successfully Over Time
WASHINGTON — Using previously non-public refugee admissions data from the State Department, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis finds that despite the fact that refugees to the United States come from increasingly diverse origins and linguistic backgrounds and that some arrive with low native-language literacy and education, most refugees successfully integrate into the U.S. labor market and society over time.
The U.S. resettlement program is the world’s largest, accounting for two-thirds (66,000) of the 98,000 refugees who were permanently resettled in 2013. Between fiscal 2002 – 2013, the United States admitted 644,500 refugees from 113 countries.
Without significant increases in federal funding for refugee resettlement since the mid-1980s, the increasing diversity of resettled refugees poses challenges for resettlement agencies and other service providers by complicating service delivery and potentially increasing costs, the MPI authors conclude in The Integration Outcomes of U.S. Refugees: Successes and Challenges.
Beyond rising linguistic diversity (the number of primary languages spoken rose from 114 in 2004 to 162 less than a decade later) and nationalities (64 in 2013, up from 11 in 1980), refugees also arrive with a wider range of education and native-language literacy levels than in the past.
The report, which draws on analysis of data from the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS), provides a unique demographic snapshot of the 10 largest refugee populations resettled in 2002 – 2013: from Bhutan, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, Russia, Somalia, Ukraine and Vietnam. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, the report also traces integration outcomes for refugees over time, examining their employment, English proficiency, educational attainment, household income, poverty status, and public benefit use.
“We conclude that as refugees’ experience in the United States increases, their income levels and rates of public benefit participation approach parity with the U.S.-born population,” said lead author Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at MPI.
Economic self-sufficiency is the core goal of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Researchers found this goal is largely being achieved: During the 2009 – 11 period studied, refugee men were more likely to work than U.S-born men (67 percent versus 62 percent), while refugee women were as likely to work as their U.S.-born counterparts (54 percent). Refugees also saw their income rise with length of U.S. residence, with median annual household income $31,000 higher for those here at least 20 years than for those here five years or less. Still, even after 20 years of U.S. residence, refugees’ household income was only 85 percent of the U.S. average, and was lower relative to the U.S. average than in 2000.
“Lower starting incomes and less income progression for more recent arrivals suggest that the economic climate for refugee integration may have become more challenging since the 2007 – 09 recession,” said MPI President Michael Fix. “This disadvantage could also be due to the large numbers of refugees with low literacy and education levels resettled recently. It remains to be seen whether recent refugees with limited human capital will experience the same levels of economic mobility as earlier, better-educated cohorts of refugees.”
Among the report’s other findings:
- Refugees’ participation in public benefit programs declines as their length of residence increases. In 2009 – 11, food stamp participation was relatively high (42 percent) for refugees with five years or less of U.S. residence, but fell sharply to 16 percent for those with more than 20 years of residence. Public health insurance coverage also declined from 24 percent to 13 percent. Despite these declines, refugees remained slightly more dependent on public benefit programs than the U.S. born 20 years after resettlement.
- Recent refugees from several top origins arrive with very low language skills and education levels. Half or fewer of refugees arriving from Burma, Bhutan, Liberia and Somalia during 2004 – 13 were literate in their primary language.
- Most refugees have limited English skills, which may slow their integration. While refugees’ English proficiency increases with time in the United States, 58 percent of those who had been resettled for 20 years or more remained limited English proficient (LEP).
- Just 5 to 10 percent of refugees advance their education during their first 20 years in the United States—a sign perhaps of the U.S. resettlement program’s heavy emphasis on rapid employment, as well as limited resources for refugee education and language instruction.
The report recommends that policymakers consider how to better meet the needs of refugee groups that are at particular disadvantage upon arrival in order to support their long-term integration. Strategies could include supporting enrollment in programs that could fill gaps in literacy, language and job skills as refugees await resettlement, often in camps where they live for years. Pilot English language programs recently begun by the State Department in Kenya, Thailand and Nepal are a step in this direction. The authors also suggest improving refugees’ access, once in the United States, to mainstream education and job training programs, given limited refugee resettlement program budgets.
“While public doubts and political resistance have emerged in the absence of solid data on the outcomes of resettlement efforts, our analysis finds that despite challenges, the U.S. refugee program is successfully promoting refugee self-sufficiency,’’ said MPI Senior Fellow Kathleen Newland. “This is an important finding at a time when the number of refugees worldwide is surging, and the need for resettlement only continues to increase.”
# # #
The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more, visitwww.migrationpolicy.org. To learn more about MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration, visit www.migrationpolicy.org/transatlantic.