Charting a Course to Rebuild and Strengthen the US Refugee Admissions Program

Donald Kerwin and Mike Nicholson
Center for Migration Studies

Editorial credit: Jazzmany /

Charting a Course to Rebuild and Strengthen the US Refugee Admissions Program



This report analyzes the US refugee resettlement program – known as “USRAP” (the US Refugee Admissions Program) – leveraging data from a national survey of resettlement stakeholders conducted in 2020.[1] The survey examined USRAP from the time that refugees arrive in the United States. The survey’s 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 report 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 USRAP’s infrastructure and community-based resettlement networks have been decimated in recent years, the Biden administration’s main challenges will be to rebuild and revitalize the program, educate the public on it, and try to regain broad, bi-partisan support for it. The report also points to specific ways in which USRAP’s programs and services should be strengthened. Among the study’s findings:[2]

  • 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 it 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 as the main false ideas about the program that: 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 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 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.

The report’s findings and recommendations chart a course to rebuild and strengthen USRAP based on the collective experience of resettled refugees, federal, state and local officials, state refugee coordinators, state refugee health coordinators, CBOs, and other resettlement stakeholders. The report illustrates the need for the Biden and subsequent administrations to prioritize the revitalization of the refugee program, building on its historic strengths. It recommends that the Biden administration:

  • Make it a high priority to work with Congress to rebuild and refund USRAP’s infrastructure and its community-based resettlement networks in anticipation of far greater admissions.
  • Increase refugee admission ceilings over each of the next four years to levels that resettlement agencies can accommodate, that reflect the size and diversity of the global refugee population, and that honor the nation’s historic role as an international leader in resettlement.
  • Provide stable, multi-year funding for national and local resettlement agencies so that they can expand their capacity, invest in necessary staffing, and better respond to large-scale secondary migration.
  • Rigorously adhere to the legally mandated consultative processes for assessing the global refugee situation, establishing refugee admissions levels and categories, and engaging Congress, states and localities, and other stakeholders in the resettlement process.
  • Rescind the Trump administration’s “Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement,” which allows states and localities to veto resettlement in their jurisdictions.
  • Strengthen quarterly consultations with resettlement stakeholders devoted to information sharing, identifying the needs of refugees, and building accountability for the program’s success.
  • Educate the public, Congress, and receiving communities on the contributions and aspirations of refugees, the purpose of USRAP, its strengths, and its need for broad community engagement and support.
  • Commit to collecting better data on the integration outcomes of refugees and their children in order to inform and strengthen resettlement services, and establish deeper partnerships with research institutions to advance this goal.
  • Support research, informed by refugees, on their lived experiences and on USRAP’s responsiveness to their needs and to the needs of their communities.

The report also argues for specific programmatic improvements and greater responsiveness to the individual needs of refugees over time. As the first comprehensive survey of its kind, resettlement stakeholders should closely review and mine its findings for ways to revitalize and strengthen the program. USRAP should:

  • Build on the guiding principle of “client-centered” case management (ORR 2020b) to assess the challenges, needs, and goals of each refugee and develop tailored plans of services and programs in response.
  • Prioritize helping recently arrived refugees to connect with employers, learn English, secure job skill training, access culturally attuned and trauma-informed medical and mental health services, attend appointments, enroll their children in school, apply for benefits, and use public transportation.
  • Offer services that respond to the changing needs, challenges, and ambitions of diverse refugees based on their individual needs and, as necessary, for longer than current periods.
  • Afford refugees, particularly those with vulnerabilities, a greater say in the content, length, and accessibility of programs to promote their settlement and integration.
  • Establish an advisory group of refugees to meet regularly with Department of State (DOS) and Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) officials, resettlement agency representatives, state refugee coordinators, and state refugee health coordinators on how to strengthen USRAP and to provide refugees a greater voice in their own resettlement.
  • Adopt a more expansive and flexible approach to resettlement that recognizes the importance of work but defines integration more broadly than self-sufficiency through early employment.
  • Do not deny refugees basic services for failing to accept early employment in entry-level jobs that may not be compatible with their prior education, professional achievements, and long-term goals.
  • Seek alternatives to early employment in low-skilled positions for refugees with pre-existing skills needed in the US economy, including programs that help them gain certification of their credentials, as was a common practice prior to 1980.
  • Afford refugees the time and training to find work that reflects their skills and credentials, and offer services (such as more childcare and mental health services) that allow refugees to study, learn English, and otherwise improve their work prospects.
  • Allow refugees to enhance their work-related skills and prospects through financial support, training, and technical assistance in starting businesses.
  • Provide extended case management and support services to refugee children and youth that address their unique needs and obstacles to their integration.
  • Pilot an online integration school for refugee youth that meets their unique educational, social and emotional needs, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that offers them access to the internet and digital literacy training.
  • Provide funding and access to more extensive, culturally attuned and trauma-informed mental health services.
  • Provide greater support in navigating the complex US health-care system.
  • Devote more specialized programming and individualized attention to finding safe, accessible, welcoming communities and living situations for LGBTQ refugees.
  • Offer LGBTQ refugees extended case management services, more programs targeted to their specific and diverse needs, and greater medical and psychosocial services.
  • Extend the Section 8 rental assistance program to refugees, given their persistent difficulties in finding safe and affordable housing.
  • Prioritize and expedite family reunification.

Successful programs for refugees or immigrants invariably face criticism for excluding native-born persons. Often, these criticisms mask hostility to the presence of refugees and immigrants or reflect a zero-sum mindset regarding resource distribution. However, sometimes they speak to legitimate frustrations and the difficulty of native-born and other US residents in obtaining comparable services and benefits. The resettlement program should be preserved and strengthened. Where possible, USRAP should also work closely with mainstream social service programs to identify needs that are common to refugees and other vulnerable populations and to promote the ability of refugees to access those programs and additional private funding streams. Conversely, greater research and analysis are needed on whether USRAP might serve as a model for promoting the well-being and advancement of other underserved and impoverished US communities, and whether more of its community-based programs for refugees should be extended to other populations.

Section I introduces the report and provides historic context. Section II outlines the US resettlement process and programs. Section III describes the CMS Refugee Resettlement Survey for 2020. Section IV sets forth the study’s main findings, with sub-sections 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 report ends with a series of recommendations to rebuild and strengthen this program.


[1] Of the 559 survey respondents, 118 identified as refugees or former refugees and 49 identified as members of groups also served by the US resettlement program. Seventy of these “refugee” respondents (defined to include all three groups) worked for non-profits, 30 for government offices, and 24 for state coordinators. Some 354 respondents worked for non-profits and resettlement agencies. A plurality of non-profit respondents (214), represented local, state, or regional offices of resettlement agencies. Forty-six worked for state refugee coordinators and 22 for state refugee health coordinators. Ninety-one respondents worked for government agencies and public schools.

[2] In using the term “respondents,” the survey refers to all the respondents to a particular question. As discussed below, “refugee respondents” include refugees and other populations eligible for USRAP services, and “non-refugee respondents” refer to non-refugee stakeholders in the resettlement process and former refugees that work or volunteer for entities that provide resettlement services.

Logos of the Center for Migration Studies of New York and Refugee Council USA

Author Names

Donald Kerwin and Mike Nicholson
Center for Migration Studies

Date of Publication December 2020
DOI 10.14240/cmsrpt1220


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