Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Refugee Policy in the U.S.: A Safe Haven?

By Margaret McGranePublished October 21, 2014

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A thorough review of United States refugee resettlement legislation has not occurred since the 1980s. The current framework fails to reflect the increasing quantity and diversity of entrants or provide adequate tools to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Understanding the shortcomings of current legislation is critical to conceptualizing how to proceed.
By Margaret McGrane, 10/21/2014

Since 1975 the United States has admitted upwards of three million refugees, more than all other resettlement countries combinedUnlike other immigrants, refugees are taken into the country on the basis of humanitarian protection, placing a certain level of obligation upon the host nation to ensure their wellbeing. President Obama increased refugee admissions for the 2014 fiscal year by 20% to 70,000; the presidential memorandum justified the spike by citing increased humanitarian concerns in the international community and national interests. No mention of the nation's capacity or ability to properly serve these refugees was included. Despite the sole responsibility of the federal government to establish admission rates, they do not share equally in the burden of providing sufficient resettlement services to those who cannot return to their native countries.

The Reception and Placement Program, a function of the Department of State's [DOS] Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration [PRM], is the primary federal office charged with resettlement services. PRM provides only the most rudimentary assistance, the timeline of which rarely exceeds 30 days. The limited duration and services provided by the federal government makes economic self-sufficiency next to impossible for individuals facing significant cultural and linguistic barriers.

Voluntary agencies, known as volags, theoretically provide the remaining resources necessary for successful assimilation. Volags' assistance lasts slightly longer, typically four months. The immediacy of support that accompanies resettlement has led to the "front loading" of services. As a result, the lion's share of focus and resources is devoted to the most recent wave of refugees. No federal obligation currently compels any level of government or voluntary agency to provide assistance beyond a refugee's first five years in the country. The absence of adequate services beyond initial relocation has created a drain on local communities.

The administration of refugee resettlement services is at the center of the conundrum.  Refugees receive minimal assistance from the DOS before being bounced around non-governmental organizations, which are often understaffed and underfunded. Information sharing between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, DOS, state refugee offices, and vogals is minimal, if not nonexistent. Consequently, critical information about a refugee's personal history and specific needs are rarely communicated to reception communities, rendering groups with the best of intentions incapable of efficient preparation.

PRM is required by law to "consult regularly … with State and local governments and private nonprofit voluntary agencies concerning … the intended distribution of refugees among the States and localities." In practice, resettlement communities rarely have any notice of, or input into the quantity of refugees they receive. More often than not, resettlement locales are located in low-rent, low-income, urban neighborhoods struggling to provide support to their native populations. Influxes of diverse refugees can contribute to racial tensions and increased pressure on public services. Refugees are four to five times more likely to be in public housing and receiving food stamps than the average American. These structural failures in the resettlement process put an excessive drain on federal resources that could be circumvented through the overhaul of refugee services.

The Immigration and Nationality Act prioritizes economic self-sufficiency in its resettlement programs, despite the growing evidence that language and cultural training are the most vital tools for successful assimilation.  Refugees often come to America after years in camps and have little to offer in terms of transferable employment or linguistic skills. Even refugees who served in professional occupations often face the problem of under-employment because of their lack of language proficiency and social capacity. English as a second language programs should be the first and foremost priority of any resettlement program. Instead, volunteer agencies struggle to set up ESL curriculums in the face of poor funding and the pressure to provide the plethora of other services that the government does not administer.  ESL has the potential to reduce employment turnover rates, increase communication by refugees of crimes committed against them, increase educational attainment, and make the cultural and linguistic integration of refugees a quicker and more successful process.

These failings indicate the need to rethink resettlement legislation within a modern political and economic context.  Serious critiques of program priorities, delegation of authority and responsibility, and duration of services, are among the leading challenges of revamping the current resettlement system. Merely increasing refugee admission rates is admirable but ultimately puts an undue burden on local communities and, the federal welfare system, and most important, it fails to adequately accommodate the survivors of international conflicts to whom we willingly offer refuge.