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11-year-old Alaa, a refugee from Syria, holds an American flag
Presidential determination

Why should America take in more refugees? Get the facts on the refugee cap.

Last updated 
Photo: Nick Hall/IRC

The United States has long offered safe haven to people fleeing violence, tyranny and persecution.

Welcoming refugees is not just a lifesaving humanitarian gesture at a time when more people worldwide are uprooted by war and crisis than ever before. Refugee resettlement also enriches our economy and enhances our national security. Now, as the Trump administration considers how many refugees to accept in 2018, American values, tradition and interests are at stake. Here’s what you need to know.

Who decides how many refugees can come to the U.S.?

The president consults with Congress and sets an annual target for refugee admissions. By law this ceiling shall be “justified by humanitarian concern or otherwise in national interest.” The presidential determination is issued before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

The average annual refugee ceiling since the 1980 Refugee Act exceeds 95,000. President Barack Obama set a refugee admissions target of 110,000 for 2017. In January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would slash that number by more than half, citing unfounded fears that terrorists may infiltrate the refugee resettlement program.

How many refugees will be admitted next year?

The Trump administration has set the lowest refugee admissions ceiling ever on record, at 45,000. No U.S. president, not even in the wake of 9/11, has so turned their back on refugees.


Why this number won't suffice

Traditionally, the U.S. admissions ceiling has been set commensurate with global humanitarian need, capacity of the U.S. resettlement program, and U.S. strategic interests. 

All around the world, people are fleeing war-torn countries at record levels—22.5 million, the highest number of refugees ever. The majority are women and children.

There’s no end in sight to the refugee crisis as conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northeast Nigeria continue to deteriorate. Each minute 20 people are forced to leave their homes behind.

Only those refugees most at risk—just 1 percent of the total—have a chance to resettle in the U.S. or another welcoming country. Most are widows, orphans or victims of rape, torture, religious persecution, political oppression and terror. Some are interpreters in danger because they served alongside American troops in their countries.

Refugee resettlement reflects American values

 5-year-old Jori walks to school holding her father's hand
Although her family arrived in the U.S. barely two years ago as refugees from Syria, 5-year-old Jori and her big brother, Majed, 8, are learning English and thriving in their new home in Dallas. Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC


Presidents of both parties have ensured that America leads in times of crisis: They've supported refugees who seek liberty and reject ideologies opposed to American values.

Republicans and Democrats have raised admissions for refugees fleeing communist uprisings, religious persecution and tyranny in countries like Vietnam, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, Kosovo, Myanmar and Iran. Today the U.S. must provide unwavering welcome for people fleeing ISIS and other terrorist ideologies.

Meet refugees who arrived over the last three decades.

Refugee resettlement advances American strategic interests abroad

Welcoming refugees helps our allies hosting more than their fair share. In war-torn Syria's neighbor Jordan, for example, 1 of every 6 residents is a refugee. Jordan is one of 10 countries, with 2.5 percent of global GDP, that host over half of all refugees; the 6 wealthiest countries host fewer than 9 percent.

If the U.S. refuses to do its part, we risk other countries closing their borders, shutting down refugee camps and forcing refugees to return. This would have catastrophic consequences for regional stability and security. But if the U.S. continues to lead on resettlement, this encourages other countries to do more.

Refugee resettlement is secure

The hardest way to come the U.S. is as a refugee. Every refugee is hand selected for resettlement by the Department of Homeland Security and screened by security agencies in an exhaustive process that can take up to three years.

U.S. agencies admit no one about whom there are doubts. Of the more than 3 million refugees admitted to the U.S. since 1980, not a single refugee has committed a lethal terrorist attack on U.S. soil. 

See the vetting process in action.

Americans welcome refugees in their communities

Susie Lawrence and Kazingufu Rananzani
Susie Lawrence (left), a volunteer mentor in Baltimore, Maryland, helped Congolese refugee Kazingufu Rananzani (right) and his family adapt to American culture and life. Photo: Keith Lane/IRC

Hundreds of communities across the country welcome refugees with open arms. Thousands of volunteers from faith and community groups help refugees adapt to the American way of life. The number of Americans volunteering to assist refugees far exceeds the number of refugees actually arriving.  And private support for refugees dwarfs public financing. 

In addition, hundreds of employers around the country work closely with resettlement agencies to hire refugees because they are reliable and hard-working.

See welcome in action.

Refugees are good for the economy

Refugees are entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers, contributing to economic growth and creating jobs. Entrepreneurship among refugees is nearly 50 percent higher than among people born in the U.S. 

Salam Bunyan and his wife Aseel in their Middle Eastern restauarant in Boise

Uprooted from Iraq and Syria, Salam Bunyan, his wife Aseel and their children were resettled in Boise, Idaho, where he has opened a Middle Eastern restaurant that employs Americans.

Photo: Jonathan McBride/IRC

The U.S. refugee resettlement program is designed to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency quickly. In 2016, over 80 percent of refugees in the International Rescue Committee’s early employment program were economically self-sufficient within six months. And refugees pay on average $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in government benefits.

Refugees have gone on to become CEOs, ambassadors, and influential economic and cultural figures, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Meet 44 famous refugees.

What can I do to stand for refugees?

Speak out. Tell your lawmakers that an admissions level of at least 75,000 shows the world that the U.S. remains a safe haven for those fleeing persecution, terror and ideologies antithetical to American democratic values. Anything less would be to turn our backs on our humanitarian tradition and global leadership. Take action now. 

See 12 ways to help refugees.

Learn more

Read the IRC's policy brief: The future of refugee welcome in the United States (September 2017)