Many refugees will spend years uprooted, unable to return home, hoping and praying for a chance to be considered for the refugee resettlement process. In 2021, nearly 80 million people are displaced, and 26 million meet the legal definition of a refugee. Despite the urgent need, only a small fraction of refugees have been resettled in a safe third country – only 22,770 were resettled in 2020 according to the United Nations.
But what is refugee resettlement and how does the process work in the United States? Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has 80 years of experience resettling refugees – we invite you to read and share this educational resource.
What is refugee resettlement?
Many refugees cannot go home because of continued conflict, war, and persecution. In such circumstances, there is a global system of governmental and non-governmental actors that helps resettle refugees to a safe third country.
Refugee resettlement is therefore the transfer of refugees from one country to another that has agreed to admit them, and ultimately grant them permanent residence.
Resettlement to a safe third country is considered for only a small fraction of refugees: those whose conditions are so perilous or whose needs cannot be met in the country where they first sought protection. Only a small number of states take part in resettlement programs—among them are the United States, Australia, Canada, the Nordic countries, and increasingly some countries in Europe and Latin America.
Need a refresher? Read our blog article, “What’s The Difference Between Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants?”
Why is refugee resettlement important?
Most importantly, refugee resettlement protects the most precious right of all – the right to live. Closing our doors to refugees could be fatal for them, in many cases. The work of resettling refugees is, by nature, lifesaving.
Beyond the moral imperative of this work, refugee resettlement is important as an economic tool as well. The vast majority of refugees in the U.S. are of working age, offering a vital boost to an American society that is quickly aging out of the workforce.
Given their high rates of entrepreneurism, we also know that refugees create and invent things we rely on – former refugee Sergey Brin is the co-founder of Google; former refugee Ralph Baer is widely credited as the inventor of video games; and former refugee David Tran built a booming food business around the beloved Sriracha chili sauce.
Learn more about refugee contributions in our blog article “10 Reasons Why America Needs Refugees”
What is the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program?
The United States of America is one of the countries in the world that accepts refugees for resettlement. Since 1980, Americans have welcomed more than 3 million refugees from all over the world through the United States Refugee Admissions Program, or USRAP.
When a refugee is identified for resettlement in the U.S. — and before their flight is arranged — nonprofit resettlement agencies like LIRS sit down with USRAP stakeholders to determine the best destination city for each case, in consultation and coordination with local communities.
During the refugee resettlement process, LIRS experts take into account the refugee’s country of origin, the language they speak, where in the country they might have family members, and other important factors such as physical disabilities or mental health needs. Based on this information, LIRS and the other agencies will identify which of our collective network partners is best equipped to support each individual or family.
When a refugee first arrives at the airport, they are greeted by resettlement agency staff and brought to a home or apartment that has been prepared for them in advance. For example, LIRS and its volunteers will provide modest furniture, a stocked pantry of culturally familiar foods, and all of the basic amenities of an American home.
Over the course of the next few months, case managers support the individual or family in learning to navigate their new community. Adults are enrolled in English language classes, children are enrolled in school, and case managers guide refugees in using public transportation and accessing community resources. Case managers support refugees in learning financial literacy and help them find a job or vocational calling that will be a steppingstone towards self-sufficiency. They are also introduced to new neighbors and church and community groups that will play an important role in providing each refugee with support and companionship for years to come.
If you would like to support the work LIRS does to welcome newly arrived refugees, please consider a donation today.
What is the process for a refugee to come to America?
There is a rigorous, time-intensive process for refugees to be resettled in America. To be considered for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, refugees must first be referred by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or be eligible to apply through one of the Direct Access Programs.
When a referral is made, the case is first received and processed by a Resettlement Support Center. The Department of State currently funds and manages seven Resettlement Support Centers around the world operated by non-governmental organizations, international organizations, or U.S. embassy contractors.
These support centers collect biographic and other information from the applicants to prepare cases for security screening, interview, and adjudication by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS officers review the information that the RSC has collected, and the results of security screening processes. They then conduct an in-person interview with each refugee applicant before deciding whether to approve him or her for classification as a refugee.
Refugees selected to be resettled in the United States must pass no fewer than 12 screening checks by various international and U.S. authorities. The process includes at least 3 background checks, 3 fingerprint verifications, multiple medical screenings (including screening for contagious disease), in-person interviews with specialized State Department and Department of Homeland Security officials and final security checks at the airport — government authorities reserve the right to additional screening as well.
This vetting process involves not only the United Nations, but a wide range of U.S. government authorities such as the FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services and the wider U.S. Intelligence Community.
Once all required steps are completed, the refugee’s case is referred to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for transportation to the U.S. The Department of State funds the international transportation of refugees resettled in the United States through a program administered by IOM. However, the cost of transportation is provided to refugees in the form of a no-interest loan, and refugees are responsible for repaying these loans over time, beginning six months after their arrival.
How long is refugee resettlement?
Every refugee resettlement case is unique and the length of time it takes to complete the USRAP process depends upon the details and circumstances of each case. However, generally the vetting time – from the refugee’s initial UNHCR referral to his or her arrival in the U.S. – has averaged approximately 24 months in recent years, but in many cases, can last much longer.
How long can refugees stay in the US? Does refugee status expire?
Refugee status does not expire and is granted indefinitely once the refugee has arrived in the United States. However, it is important to note that refugees are required to apply for permanent resident status, also known as a green card, one year after living in the U.S.
What are the top refugee cities and states in America?
Over the past 40 years, cities and states across the country have received resettled refugees. The top destination states for refugee resettlement are:
- New York
The top 10 cities who received the most refugees in relation to their population are:
- Clarkston, Georgia
- Decatur, Georgia
- El Cajon, California
- West Springfield, Massachusetts
- Utica, New York
- Southfield, Michigan
- Syracuse, New York
- New Bern, North Carolina
- Lancaster, Pennsylvania
- Glendale, California
Research by New American Economy found that, among the above communities that received the most refugees relative to their size, rather than crime increasing, nine out of ten cities actually became considerably safer.
Who funds refugee resettlement?
The refugee resettlement process is funded by both private and public entities. Federal financing comes from the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services. As discussed above, the program provides refugees with a no-interest loan to travel to the U.S., which they are required to start repaying after they arrive. Reception and Placement funds are granted to nonprofit resettlement agencies as a one-time sum per refugee to finance their first 30-90 days in the U.S. That money is used to pay for rent and basic necessities like food and clothing, as well as the cost of personalized case management and integration services provided by resettlement agencies.
Private funds and in-kind donations are made available to nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies like LIRS from charitable foundations, corporate entities, and ordinary Americans. This financial support is absolutely critical to providing a warm welcome that extends beyond the initial sprint to find affordable accommodation and employment.
Make a gift to LIRS today to help newly arrived refugee families.