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.
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.
President Joe Biden has committed to rebuilding the refugee resettlement program by setting a refugee admissions goal of 125,000 his first year in office. This change not only offers hope to the world’s most vulnerable in a time of urgent need; it helps to repair the U.S.’s reputation abroad and incentivizes other countries to take in refugees.
The Biden Administration can also make a difference by repealing Trump Administration admissions policies that have discriminated against Muslims and refugees fleeing the world’s most harrowing crises.
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.
How does the IRC support resettled refugees?
The IRC has more than 20 offices across the United States 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.
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:
- Help the IRC support refugee families in crisis with a donation: Donate now
- Take action. Tell President Biden that you are ready to welcome refugees today.
- Look for IRC volunteer opportunities assisting refugees in the U.S.
- Find out other ways to support the IRC's refugee resettlement work across the U.S.: See where we work