Refugees are men, women and children fleeing war, persecution and political upheaval who have crossed borders to seek safety in another country. Most eventually go home when it’s safe, some stay in temporary refugee settlements, and a tiny fraction resettle in a third country, such as the United States. Learn how refugee resettlement works, how the IRC helps, and how you can help.

How many refugees are resettled in the U.S., and who decides?

Refugee status is determined by the United Nations. Most refugees who enter the U.S. refugee admissions program are identified and referred for resettlement in the U.S. by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), a U.S. embassy or an approved humanitarian aid organization.

The U.S. is just one of 29 resettlement countries. Out of the more than 26 million refugees in the world, less than one percent are considered for resettlement worldwide. 

The U.S. accepts a limited number of refugees each year. The president in consultation with Congress determines the authorized target for refugee admissions through a Presidential Determination. The Trump Administration slashed refugee admissions by more than 85%, setting record-low admission caps nearly every year: 30,000 for 2019, 18,000 for 2020 and just 15,000 for 2021. 

These numbers represented a stark decline from the average annual admissions cap of 95,000 under both Republican and Democratic administrations since the program was founded.

During his campaign, President Joe Biden promised to rebuild the refugee resettlement program. He then set an admissions goal of 62,500 for fiscal year 2021 and 125,000 for FY2022. The IRC is calling for the administration to set a goal of 125,000 refugees for fiscal year 2023. 

This would not only offer hope to the world’s most vulnerable in a time of urgent need; it would help to repair the U.S.’s reputation abroad and incentivize other countries to take in refugees.

Applicants for refugee admission to the U.S. must satisfy the following criteria:

  • Meet the definition of a "refugee" as determined by U.S. government officials.
  • Be among those refugees determined by the president to be of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.
  • Be otherwise admissible under U.S. law.
  • Not be firmly resettled in any foreign country.

Although a refugee may meet the above criteria, the existence of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program does not create any entitlement for that person to be admitted to the U.S.

How are refugees vetted?

The hardest way to come to the U.S. is as a refugee.

Refugees are vetted more intensively than any other group seeking to enter the U.S. All those seeking to come here must first be registered by the United Nations refugee agency, which identifies the families most in need. The U.S. then hand-selects every person who is admitted.

The U.S. resettlement program gives priority to refugees, usually vulnerable families, who have been targeted by violence. The U.S. does not recognize as refugees people who have committed violations of humanitarian and human rights law.

Security screenings are intense and led by U.S. government authorities, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and multiple security agencies. The process typically takes up to 36 months and is followed by further security checks after refugees arrive in the States.

How does the resettlement process work?

The Resettlement Support Center (RSC), run by agencies like the IRC, through cooperative agreements with the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, helps refugees and their families prepare their cases to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), compiling personal data and background information for security clearance.

Once refugees have been cleared for resettlement, the U.S. government works with the IRC and eight other national resettlement agencies to help them restart their lives in America.

Refugees may be placed in a city where they have relatives or friends, or where there’s an established community that shares their language or culture. Other considerations include the cost of living and access to medical services. However, as legal U.S. residents, refugees may ultimately live in any state they choose.

Preparation for travel

Before refugees leave the countries where they temporarily reside, they sign promissory notes agreeing to reimburse the U.S. government for travel costs. They also attend a class to learn about what to expect when they arrive in their new country, with briefings on American culture, U.S. laws, health benefits and other critical information. Officials also conduct a final screening and additional security checks before departure.

Arrival in the U.S.

Refugees are usually greeted and welcomed at the airport by case workers from resettlement agencies like the IRC to ensure their transition is as comfortable as possible. Agencies are responsible for finding a suitable, affordable home for refugee families, something many of these refugees have gone without for years. Families also receive basic furnishings, food and other immediate assistance.

Getting on their feet

For the first 90 days, resettlement agencies work with state and local governments and community organizations to help new arrivals settle into their communities.

  • Refugees are introduced to their local health care system. Although they have had thorough check-ups before entering the U.S., they receive additional examinations by medical professionals in their new communities.
  • Learning English is an essential step to becoming self-sufficient. Agencies help assist refugees to enroll in English courses at their local offices or help families find classes nearby.
  • Newly arrived refugees have endured years of trauma and hardship; that emotional burden does not lift once they’re in the U.S. Agencies, service providers and local communities work together to help survivors of violence and human trafficking receive the support and care they need in order to recover.
  • Parents are informed about schooling options and caseworkers help to enroll children in school. Aid agencies help ensure each child has a backpack, notebooks and other supplies for their first day.
  • Refugees receive stipends to cover their first three months in the U.S., but they are encouraged to find work quickly—and most do. Agencies reach out to local employers, some run by former refugees or other immigrants, to find job opportunities for them. Refugees can also receive support in putting together their resume and preparing for job interviews.

Once they acclimate to their new environment, refugees often thrive and contribute to their communities, starting careers, purchasing homes, building businesses and gaining citizenship.

Learn more about how the refugee vetting and resettlement process works

How does the IRC support resettled refugees?

The IRC has 28 offices across the United States (listed below, Under "Where does the IRC have offices in the U.S.?") that support newly arrived refugees by providing immediate aid, including food, housing and medical attention. 

Each resettlement office serves as a free, one-stop center for refugees’ needs during their pivotal first months in the U.S. Through a network of staff members and volunteers, the IRC helps refugees learn about life and customs in America, secure jobs, learn English, and become citizens. We provide most of the basic things they need to restart their lives here and we help them overcome cultural barriers so that their adjustment is as easy as possible.

Through community gardening, nutrition education and small-business farming, the IRC's New Roots program gives hundreds of refugee farmers the tools and training they need to grow healthy and affordable food and become self-sufficient.

Refugees are encouraged to find work quickly and stand on their own feet — and most do. Refugees even pay back the loans they take for their plane tickets here.

Where does the IRC have offices in the U.S.?
What can I do to help resettled refugees?

Everyone can help refugees by welcoming them as new and valuable members of American society.

You can help refugees by volunteering at a local resettlement agency; becoming an English tutor; a tour guide; a mentor to a family; donating money, furniture and household items; teaching other people about refugees; urging your elected officials to support refugee resettlement; and employing or encouraging local businesses to employ refugees.

Ways to help right now:

Learn about more ways to help refugees in the U.S.

I wanted someone to teach me things related to the country like laws and regulations. But then we became close friends and I see him as a father. My children call him Grandpa Dave.
A refugee from Congo, Robert Sebatware was surprised when a stranger on his doorstep quickly became one of his closest friends.
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My children motivate me to continue. I know that I do this not only for me, but for them, so that they do not have any problems when they grow up, so that they do not live or sleep in fear.
Natalia faces the camera
Natalia and her husband José traveled thousands of miles, sleeping rough on the streets, determined to reach a safe place to raise their children.
Meet Natalia
Nothing else will drive you other than purpose. For me, I imagine the person I’m trying to help.
When Diana Muturia had to leave college and take a job cleaning homes, she thought she’d let her family down. Today, she’s using her experience to build an innovative new business.
Meet Diana