The US Refugee Resettlement Program — A Return to First Principles:
How Refugees Help to Define, Strengthen, and Revitalize the United States

Editorial Credit: answer5 /

The US Refugee Resettlement Program – A Return to First Principles: How Refugees Help to Define, Strengthen and Revitalize the United States



The US refugee resettlement program should be a source of immense national pride. The program has saved countless lives, put millions of impoverished persons on a path to work, self-sufficiency, and integration, and advanced US standing in the world. Its beneficiaries have included US leaders in science, medicine, business, the law, government, education, and the arts, as well as countless others who have strengthened the nation’s social fabric through their work, family, faith, and community commitments. Refugees embody the ideals of freedom, endurance, and self-sacrifice, and their presence closes the gap between US ideals and its practices. For these reasons, the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has enjoyed strong, bipartisan support for nearly 40 years.

Yet the current administration has taken aim at this program as part of a broader attack on legal immigration programs. It has treated refugees as a burden and a potential threat to our nation, rather than as a source of strength, renewal, and inspiration. In September 2017, it set an extremely low refugee admissions ceiling (45,000) for 2018, which it had no intention of meeting: the United States is on pace to resettle less than one-half of that number. It has also tightened special clearance procedures for refugees from mostly Muslim-majority states so that virtually none can enter; cynically slow-walked the interview, screening, and admissions processes; and decimated the community-based resettlement infrastructure built up over many decades (Miliband 2018). At a time of record levels of forced displacement in the world, the United States should model solidarity with refugees and exercise leadership in global refugee protection efforts (Francis 2018a, 102). Instead, the administration has put the United States on pace to resettle the lowest number of refugees in USRAP’s 38-year history, with possible further cuts in fiscal year (FY) 2019.

This report describes the myriad ways in which this program serves US interests and values. The program:

  • saves the lives of the world’s most vulnerable persons;
  • continues “America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries” and shares the “responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression” (Reagan 1981);
  • promotes a “stable and moral world” (Helton 2002, 120);
  • reduces spontaneous, unregulated arrivals and encourages developing nations to remain engaged in refugee protection (Gammeltoft-Hansen and Tan 2017, 42-43); and
  • promotes cooperation from individuals, communities, and nations that are central to US military and counter-terrorism strategies.[1]

In that vein, the report describes the achievements, contributions, and integration outcomes of 1.1 million refugees who arrived in the United States between 1987 and 2016. It finds that:

  • the median household income of these refugees is $43,000;[2]
  • 35 percent of refugee households have mortgages;
  • 63 percent of refugees have US-born children;
  • 40 percent are married to US citizens; and
  • 67 percent have naturalized.

Comparing the 1.1 million refugees who arrived between 1987 and 2016 with non-refugees,[3] the foreign born, and the total US population, the report finds:

  • Refugees’ labor force participation (68 percent) and employment rates (64 percent) exceed those of the total US population (63 and 60 percent respectively).[4]
  • Large numbers of refugees (10 percent) are self-employed and, in this and other ways, job creators, compared to 9 percent for the total US population.
  • Refugees’ median personal income ($20,000) equals that of non-refugees and exceeds the income of the foreign born overall ($18,700).
  • Refugees are more likely to be skilled workers (38 percent) than non-refugees (33 percent) or the foreign born (35 percent).
  • Refugees are less likely to work in jobs that new immigrants fill at high rates, such as construction, restaurants and food service, landscaping, services to buildings and dwellings, crop production, and private households.
  • Refugees use food stamps and Medicaid at higher rates than non-refugees, the foreign born, and the total US population. However, their public benefit usage significantly declines over time and their integration, well-being, and US family ties increase.

Comparing refugee characteristics by time present in the United States — from the most recent arrivals (2007 to 2016), to arrivals between 1997 to 2006, to those with the longest tenure (1987 to 1996) — the report finds:

  • Refugees with the longest residence have integrated more fully than recent arrivals, as measured by households with mortgages (41 to 19 percent); English language proficiency (75 to 55 percent); naturalization rates (89 to 24 percent); college education (66 to 32 percent); labor force participation (68 to 61 percent); and employment (66 to 55 percent) and self-employment (14 to 4 percent).
  • Refugees who arrived from 1997 to 2006 have higher labor force participation and employment rates than refugees who arrived from 1987 to 1996.[5]
  • Refugees who arrived between 1987 and 1996 exceed the total US population, which consists mostly of the native-born, in median personal income ($28,000 to $23,000), homeownership (41 to 37 percent with a mortgage), percent above the poverty line (86 to 84 percent), access to a computer and the internet (82 to 75 percent), and health insurance (93 to 91 percent).

Comparing nationals — in 2000 and again in 2016 — from states formerly in the Soviet Union, who entered from 1987 to 1999, the report finds that:

  • median household income increased from $31,000 to $53,000;
  • median personal income nearly tripled, from $10,700 to $31,000;
  • the percent of households with a mortgage increased from 30 to 40 percent;
  • public benefit usage fell;
  • English language proficiency rose;
  • the percent with a college degree or some college increased (68 to 80 percent);
  • naturalization rates nearly doubled, from 47 to 89 percent;
  • marriage to US citizens rose from 33 to 51 percent; and
  • labor force participation rate (59 to 69 percent), employment (57 to 66 percent), self-employment (11 to 15 percent), and the rate of skilled workers (33 to 38 percent) all grew.

The report also finds that refugees bring linguistic diversity to the United States and, in this and other ways, increase the nation’s economic competitiveness and security.

In short, refugees become US citizens, homeowners, English speakers, workers, business owners, college educated, insured, and computer literate at high rates. These findings cover a large population of refugees comprised of all nationalities, not just particularly successful national groups.

Section I of the report describes the nation’s historic commitment to refugees and critiques the administration’s rationale for dismantling the resettlement program. Section II sets forth the Center for Migration Studies’ (CMS) methodology for selecting the refugee data used in this report. Section III discusses the resettlement, national origins, and years of arrival of the refugees in CMS’s sample. Section IV details the report’s main findings on the achievements, contributions, and integration of refugees over time. It compares the characteristics of refugees, non-refugees, the foreign born, and the total US population; and examines the progress of refugees — measured in 2000 and 2016 — that arrived from the former Soviet Union between 1987 and 1999. This section also references the growing literature on the US refugee program and on the economic and fiscal impacts of refugees. Section V discusses the important role of voluntary agencies in the resettlement process, focusing on the work of Catholic agencies in building community support for refugees and promoting their entrepreneurial initiatives. Section VI identifies the national interests served by the refugee program, recommends ways to address several of the program’s longstanding challenges, and urges the president, Congress, Americans with refugee roots, and other stakeholders to work to strengthen and expand the program.


[1] Brief for Retired Generals and Admirals of the US Armed Forces in Support of Respondents at 19-21, Trump v. Hawaii, No. 1 7-965 (Mar. 30, 2018).

[2] This is less than the median household income of the non-refugee population ($45,000), the foreign born ($56,000), and the total US population ($52,800). However, most refugees enter the United States without income, assets, or English language proficiency, and they advance dramatically over time. This report shows, for example, that the median personal income of refugees who arrived between 1987 and 1996 actually exceeds that of the total US population.

[3] The Center for Migration Studies identified non-refugees by removing persons selected as refugees from the population of all foreign born that entered after 1986, by single year of entry. In each year of entry, it then randomly selected the same number as the number of refugees.

[4] The labor force participation rate refers to the percentage of persons age 16 or over who are employed or seeking work, as opposed to out of the labor force entirely.

[5] The higher labor force participation and employment rates of refugees who arrived from 1997 to 2006 can likely be attributed to the older age of those who arrived from 1987 to 1996 (20 percent age 65 or over). Many of those who arrived in the 1987 to 1996 period had likely retired by 2016.