Charting a Course to Rebuild and Strengthen the US Refugee Admissions Program
Donald Kerwin and Mike Nicholson
February 16, 2021
This report analyzes the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), leveraging data from a national survey of resettlement stakeholders conducted in 2020. The survey examined USRAP from the time that refugees arrive in the United States. Its design and questionnaire were informed by three community gatherings organized by Refugee Council USA in the fall and winter of 2019, extensive input from an expert advisory group, and a literature review.
This study finds that USRAP serves important purposes, enjoys extensive community support, and offers a variety of effective services. Overall, the survey finds a high degree of consensus on the US resettlement program’s strengths and objectives, and close alignment between its services and the needs of refugees at different stages of their settlement and integration. Because its infrastructure and community-based resettlement networks have been decimated in recent years, the main challenges of subsequent administrations, Congresses, and USRAP stakeholders will be to rebuild, revitalize, and regain broad and bipartisan support for the program. This article also recommends specific ways that USRAP’s programs and services can be strengthened. Among the study’s findings:
- Most refugee respondents identified USRAP’s main purpose(s) as giving refugees new opportunities, helping them to integrate, offering hope to refugees living in difficult circumstances abroad, and saving lives.
- High percentages of refugees reported that the program allowed them to support themselves soon after arrival (92 percent), helped them to integrate (77 percent), and has a positive economic impact on local communities (71 percent).
- Refugee respondents also reported that the program encourages them to work in jobs that do not match their skills and credentials (56 percent), does not provide enough integration support after three months (54 percent), does not offer sufficient financial help during their first three months (49 percent), and reunites families too slowly (47 percent).
- Respondents identified the following main false ideas about the program: refugees pose a security risk (84 percent), use too many benefits and drain public finances (83 percent), and take the jobs of the native-born (74 percent).
- Refugee respondents reported using public benefits to meet basic needs, such as medical care, food, and housing.
- Non-refugee survey respondents believed at high rates that former refugees (69 percent) and refugee community advocate groups (64 percent) should be afforded a voice in the resettlement process.
- Non-refugee respondents indicated at high rates that the program’s employment requirements limit the time needed for refugees to learn English (65 percent) and limit their ability to pursue higher education (59 percent).
- Eighty-six percent of non-refugee respondents indicated that the Reception and Placement program is much too short (56 percent) or a little too short (30 percent).
- Respondents identified a wide range of persons and institutions as being very helpful to refugees in settling into their new communities: these included resettlement staff, friends, and acquaintances from refugees’ country of origin, members of places of worship, community organizations led by refugees or former refugees, and family members.
- Refugee respondents identified finding medical care (61 percent), housing (52 percent), and a job (49 percent) as the most helpful services in their first three months in the country.
- Refugees reported that the biggest challenge in their first year was to find employment that matched their educational or skill levels or backgrounds.
- The needs of refugees and the main obstacles to their successful integration differ by gender, reflecting at least in part the greater childcare responsibilities borne by refugee women.
- Refugee men reported needing assistance during their first three months in finding employment (68 percent), English Language Learning (ELL) courses (59 percent), and orientation services (56 percent), while refugee women reported needing orientation services (81 percent) and assistance in securing childcare (64 percent), finding ELL courses (53 percent), and enrolling children in school (49 percent).
- To open-response questions, non-refugee respondents identified as obstacles to the integration of men: digital literacy, (lack of) anti–domestic violence training, the need for more training to improve their jobs, the new public benefit rule, transportation to work, low wages, the need for more mental health services, cultural role adjustment, and lack of motivation.
- Non-refugee respondents identified as obstacles to the integration of women: lack of childcare and affordable housing, the different cultural roles of women in the United States, lack of affordable driver’s education classes, a shortage of ELL classes for those with low literacy or the illiterate, digital literacy challenges, difficulty navigating their children’s education and school systems, transportation problems, poorly paying jobs, and lack of friendships with US residents.
- Non-refugee respondents report that refugee children also face unique obstacles to integration, including limited funding or capacity to engage refugee parents in their children’s education, difficulties communicating with refugee families, and the unfamiliarity of teachers and school staff with the cultures and backgrounds of refugee children and families.
- LGBTQ refugees have many of the same basic needs as other refugees — education, housing, employment, transportation, psychosocial, and others — but face unique challenges in meeting these needs due to possible rejection by refugees and immigrants from their own countries and by other residents of their new communities.
- Since 2017, the number of resettlement agencies has fallen sharply, and large numbers of staff at the remaining agencies have been laid off. As a result, the program has suffered a loss in expertise, institutional knowledge, language diversity, and resettlement capacity.
- Resettlement agencies and community-based organizations (CBOs) reported at high rates that to accommodate pre-2017 numbers of refugees, they would need higher staffing levels in employment services (66 percent), general integration and adjustment services (62 percent), mental health care (44 percent) and medical case management (44 percent).
- Resettlement agencies indicated that they face immense operational and financial challenges, some of them longstanding (like per capita funding and secondary migration), and some related to the Trump administration’s hostility to the program.
Section I introduces the article and provides historic context on the US refugee program. Section II outlines the resettlement process and its constituent programs. Section III describes the CMS Refugee Resettlement Survey: 2020. Section IV sets forth the study’s main findings, with subsections covering USRAP’s purpose and overall strengths and weaknesses; critiques of the program; the importance of receiving communities to resettlement and integration; the effectiveness of select USRAP programs and services; integration metrics; and obstacles to integration. The article ends with a series of recommendations to rebuild and strengthen this program.
This article represents a shorter, modified version of a report released by the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) and Refugee Council USA (RCUSA) on December 8, 2020.