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A Solvable Challenge: Improving Asylee Access to Health and Other Benefits
Bhutanese refugee sits on bed in family's apartment in New York
Kashish Das Shrestha/UNHCR

In recent years, there has been significant attention to the process by which individuals entering the United States make a claim for protection based on persecution or fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Much of the public attention on the asylum system, understandably, is on the number of people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, the large backlogs in asylum claims, and the multiple ways in which the Trump administration restricted access to asylum. These issues all urgently demand attention, but so should another: supporting the well-being of individuals and families after they receive a grant of asylum.

Asylum seekers often arrive with little more than the possessions they are carrying. After receiving asylum, asylees may be eligible for health care, child care, and employment assistance, as well as other public benefits and services. However, there is no system to notify them that they may be eligible for such aid or to connect them with the assistance. As part of its commitment to safe, orderly, and humane asylum policies, the Biden administration could resolve this problem and improve supports for asylees with a set of low-cost, administrative actions.

Asylees Do Not Benefit from the Same Integration Structure as Refugees

The same legal standards apply to determining refugee and asylee status; the key difference is that refugee status is determined outside of the United States while asylum grants are made for people who have already entered the United States. Once asylum is given, the asylee is eligible for federal public benefits and services to the same extent as a refugee. This includes both benefits and services provided through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for humanitarian populations, and federal public benefits more broadly available and often referred to as mainstream benefits, such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), child-care subsidies, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

But refugees crucially also receive assistance and services through the State Department-funded Reception and Placement Program—a support not available to asylees. Through this program, a network of national resettlement agencies and their local affiliates provides assistance with upfront expenses and helps refugees enroll in employment services or school and apply for Social Security cards, as well as connects them with a range of other services during their first 90 days of resettlement.

Many resettlement agencies also provide additional longer-term integration support through direct funding from ORR. In addition, state refugee coordinators funded by ORR provide social services to arriving refugees in their first five years in the United States, often through contracts with resettlement agencies. They also provide up to eight months of cash assistance for those refugees ineligible for TANF or SSI, and up to eight months of medical assistance for those ineligible for Medicaid. Asylees qualify for the full set of ORR-funded services available to refugees, yet there is no system to connect them with public benefits and services.

The chances of receiving any information about public benefits and services depends on how a person is granted asylum. Individuals may be granted asylum through an affirmative process, based on submitting an application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), or may raise an asylum claim in a defensive process before an immigration judge. Individuals who are granted asylum through the affirmative process receive a packet of information from USCIS about their roles and responsibilities as asylees. The packet states that asylees may be able to get benefits and services from ORR and should contact the agency for additional information, but it is only available in English and does not provide information beyond a link to the ORR website. For individuals granted asylum defensively, each immigration judge determines whether the individual is notified about the availability of benefits and services; there is no uniform policy, and there is significant inconsistency among judges.

Box 1. Recent Trends in Refugee Admissions and Asylum Grants

Between fiscal years (FY) 2009 and 2017, the number of admitted refugees was nearly triple the number of persons granted asylum. But in FY 2018 and 2019, even with the Trump administration’s restrictions on asylum, the number of asylum grants exceeded the number of refugees admitted to the United States, largely because of significantly reduced refugee admissions.

Figure 1. U.S. Refugee Admissions and Asylum Grants, FY 2009-19

Note: Fiscal year (FY) 2019 represented the most recent year for asylum grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Sources Refugee Processing Center, “Refugee Admissions Report,” accessed March 31, 2021, available online; DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, “Refugees and Asylees 2019 Data Tables,” Table 16, accessed March 31, 2021, available online.

A Fraction of Asylees Access ORR Benefits and Services

It is not possible to state the extent to which asylees participate in mainstream benefits programs because programs do not collect or report this information. However, available data from ORR makes clear how few asylees receive ORR-funded assistance. The agency reports data on the numbers of persons served in ORR-funded social services in the first year after refugee admission or asylum grant. Based on Migration Policy Institute (MPI) calculations, it appears that fewer than 20 percent of the persons granted asylum between FY 2015 and FY 2019 received ORR-funded services in their first year after being granted asylum.

Of course, not all asylees want government assistance after attaining asylum. Often by the time asylum is granted, an individual has been in the country for several years and if work authorized may already have stable employment. Still, Refugee Social Services can be used to fund a wide range of services including language acquisition, skill improvement, employment advancement, and naturalization assistance. And, even if already employed, asylees often could benefit from being connected with programs such as Medicaid, child-care and SNAP benefits, and federal student loans or other resources to support their educational goals.

Figure 2. Number of Refugees and Asylees Who Accessed ORR Services, FY 2015-19

Note: Since the data provided for FY 2015 and FY 2016 were combined, MPI evenly divided the number of refugees and asylees who accessed ORR services between those two years.
Sources Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), “Dear Colleague Letter 17-07,” August 15, 2017, available online; ORR, “Dear Colleague Letter 18-05,” October 1, 2018, available online; ORR, “Dear Colleague Letter 19-05,” August 2, 2019, available online; ORR, “Dear Colleague Letter 20-06,” May 19, 2020, available online; DHS, Annual Flow Report: Refugees and Asylees 2017 (Washington, DC: DHS, 2019), Table 7, available online; DHS, Refugees and Asylees: 2019 (Washington, DC: DHS, 2020), Table 7, available online.

A Relatively Easy Fix

Federal agencies can significantly improve access to benefits and services for asylees without new legislation. In February 2021, President Joe Biden directed the White House Domestic Policy Council to convene an interagency Task Force on New Americans to coordinate the federal government’s efforts to welcome and support immigrants. The administration could leverage this task force to coordinate the agencies responsible for adjudicating asylum grants, namely USCIS and the immigration courts, and those responsible for delivering health and human services, including ORR. These federal partners could also develop or strengthen linkages between local asylum offices, immigration courts, resettlement agencies, and other service providers to develop policies and communication systems that facilitate asylees’ access to benefits and services.

First, ORR should re-establish a national hotline for asylee queries about benefits and services. From FY 2001 through 2012, ORR funded the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) to administer the National Asylee Information and Referral Line. The hotline, which received 3,943 calls in its last year of operation, officially closed after federal funding ended. Since that time, some states have developed their own hotlines or outreach initiatives, and asylees and service providers have relied on an information and referral hotline funded by New York state and designed primarily as a state resource. While the New York hotline continues to connect asylees with resources, the numbers show the need for a national hotline. For example, in its last month of operation the national hotline handled 429 calls and provided in excess of 1,140 referrals to individuals from more than 70 countries calling from 30 states. In the same month of 2020, the New York hotline handled 27 calls from asylees from 12 countries. In response, the hotline provided 41 referrals to individuals calling from 11 states. Re-establishing the national hotline would provide a simple way that asylees, lawyers, service providers, and others could access information about available resources.

Second, USCIS should improve the information provided to those to whom it grants asylum, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) within the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees policy implementation for the immigration courts, could develop a standard, user-friendly information packet for those granted asylum by judges. If ORR establishes a hotline, that information could be provided as well. If not, the packets could provide phone numbers and/or email addresses for individual inquiries to ORR, the relevant state refugee coordinator, and the nine national resettlement agencies. Both USCIS and EOIR could also encourage collaborations between local immigration judges, asylum offices, and resettlement agencies to better disseminate information about benefits and services in orientations for new asylees.

Third, ORR should engage in messaging, technical assistance, and pilot programs with state refugee coordinators, resettlement agencies, and other service providers, emphasizing the need to improve outreach and services to asylees, both for ORR-funded services and in helping asylees access mainstream programs. From data already being reported, ORR could estimate the shares of refugees and asylees receiving services, and such calculations would highlight the disparities between the two groups. ORR could offer technical assistance to state refugee coordinators and resettlement agencies to develop target measures for serving more asylees in ways that respond to their distinct needs. This population includes unaccompanied children who receive asylum grants. These service needs could include help with applying for cash or food assistance, mental-health supports to cope with trauma from detention or other migration experiences, and service delivery in asylee-specific languages that are often different from refugee languages. ORR and its implementing partners could also inform their programs and policies by seeking input from asylee communities to gauge their needs. ORR could also make use of competitive grant funding to encourage resettlement agencies and other service providers to pilot and test innovative service models designed to improve asylees’ access to services and the quality of those services.

These actions, taken together, could substantially improve access to benefits and services for children and adults granted asylum. Doing so could provide significant help to asylees and their families and could lead to greater success in sustaining employment, addressing children’s health needs, and promoting integration of asylees into the communities in which they live. Local communities would also gain from this as asylees contribute to the local workforce, tax base, and civic duties.

The authors thank Ben Levey, formerly at HIAS; Kelly Agnew-Barajas, at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, and Danielle Grigsby, Consultant at Summit Nonprofit Consulting, for their insights.