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Biden has resettled the fewest refugees in the history of the U.S. program. What could change that?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/2/2021 Reva Dhingra, Mitchell Kilborn, Olivia Woldemikael
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Last month, media outlets reported that the United States resettled 11,411 refugees under the refugee resettlement program in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That’s the lowest number since the program began in 1980, beneath President Donald Trump’s record low of 11,814 resettled in 2020. It’s also significantly below the cap of 62,500 that President Biden announced in May.

The Biden administration explained that the low numbers resulted from the previous administration’s damage to the program and from pandemic challenges like office closures and staff cuts. For this new fiscal year, the administration set an ambitious cap of 125,000 admissions.

Right now, the government is especially concerned with Afghans evacuated under the humanitarian parole program after the U.S. withdrawal from their country. On Sept. 30, Congress passed a short-term spending bill in which an additional $6.3 billion was allocated to resettle Afghan evacuees and made the group eligible for the same benefits as refugees in the federal resettlement program, which is separate.

This week, the State Department announced that it would take another, unprecedented step: Groups of U.S. residents will be able to sponsor some evacuees, taking responsibility for supporting them as they find housing and employment. For the United States, that’s an innovative alternative.

Our recent research reveals why such programs are worthwhile — not just for the refugees but for the United States. We analyzed 50 years of data and found that refugees aren’t a net cost for local communities; with support, refugees can actually benefit local communities financially and socially. Here’s how that works — and what research suggests about improving that support.

What is the refugee resettlement program?

In 1980, Congress passed the Refugee Act, which formalized legal protections for refugees and established the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This law distinguishes among various groups of migrants in need: refugees, who are screened before they come to the United States; asylum seekers, who apply for status once in the United States or at a border or airport; the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, for individuals who have worked with or assisted the U.S. government, such as interpreters for the military; and the humanitarian parole program, which speeds processing in emergencies like Afghanistan’s rapid fall to the Taliban.

The refugee resettlement category accepts individuals who originally fled their home country to another one — usually a bordering, developing nation — because of war, conflict, or persecution, and can neither remain in that second country nor return home.

Here’s how that process works. First, the president, in discussion with Congress, sets a cap for the number of refugees to be admitted each year. Second, the State Department selects refugees in consultation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which suggests individuals who meet international and U.S. criteria as refugees in need of resettlement. The State Department also applies U.S. criteria — for instance, prioritizing refugees who already have relatives in the United States — and runs a security check on each individual, a process that can take years.

Third, once the State Department approves refugees, the United States transfers them from countries where they have sought asylum — or in some cases, their countries of origin — to the United States. Finally, federal agencies work with nine national nonprofit organizations to decide where in the country to place them, supported by those organizations’ local affiliates.

Democratic and Republican administrations have long agreed on one thing — discriminating against Haitian refugees

The federal resettlement program helps local governments and nonprofits support refugees

Some local officials actively seek to bring refugees to their communities. But one recent study found that 40 percent of local officials surveyed cited economic concerns when asked whether they would host refugees.

That’s an unnecessary concern, our recent research finds. The resettlement program helps communities support refugees, eliminating additional costs for localities. We used a variety of data sources, including the census, budget and revenue data from the Government Finance Database, State Department refugee resettlement data and other data from a new study that collected and analyzed ORR data from 1975 to 2018.

By examining data covering 1967 to 2018, we found that when a community adds refugees, it has no statistically significant impact on that year’s local or state government revenue or expenditures. We further interviewed local government and nonprofit officials in Virginia, and learned that while refugees do rely on state and local services, the federal government pays for those efforts.

With that federal funding, national nonprofit organizations, local community groups, and local officials offer an initial 90-day Reception and Placement program, which helps refugees find housing and sign up for schooling, employment programs, and some federal benefits. After that, these groups and federal and state governments offer some longer-term supports, such as medical assistance and social services. Over the longer term — eight to 20 years — refugees contribute more in taxes to local, state and federal coffers than the benefits they receive, research finds.

How resettling Afghan refugees might help Afghanistan's future

Rebuilding the refugee program

The Trump administration unraveled the cooperation between the federal government and nonprofit groups that supported the refugee resettlement program, including laying off relevant staff and slashing funding for resettlement. But scholars and resettlement agencies argue that even before the Trump administration, the resettlement program was, too often, leaving refugees in need.

Other research suggests some ways to improve the program. For instance, the new private sponsorship for Afghan evacuees is based on Canada’s “Group of Five” program, in which residents can sponsor a refugee. If rolled out further, this approach could enable the United States to host more refugees than resettlement organizations are currently equipped to support. The Center for American Progress released a 2020 report suggesting the resettlement organizations could diversify funding sources, such as further seeking funds from faith networks and private funders.

Other research suggests ways to better integrate refugees into their new lives. For instance, the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab and the International Rescue Committee created a machine learning-based algorithm that makes it easier to match individuals with job opportunities. And a study in Georgia suggested settling some refugees outside urban areas, where they’re usually clustered.

More and more people are being displaced around the globe, whether from conflict, climate change disasters, or some other reason. Our own and others’ research suggests that the United States can strengthen the local communities that open their doors to refugees.

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Reva Dhingra (@Reva_D) is a PhD candidate in government at Harvard University researching migration and international aid.

Mitchell Kilborn is a PhD candidate in government at Harvard University studying American politics.

Olivia Woldemikael @owoldemik is a PhD candidate in government at Harvard University studying comparative politics and migration.


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