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Keeping Our Doors Open? An Overview of Refugee Resettlement Policy in The United States

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
July 7, 2017

Refugee resettlement in the United States is a contentious issue, and debates over resettlement policies seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In this article, I discuss how refugee resettlement policies in the United States have developed over the years in response to various refugee crises. I also discuss public reactions to these policies and offer suggestions for moving forward.


Refugee resettlement in the United States formally began following World War II, and the number of refugees accepted into this country has fluctuated yet generally increased since that time. In 1968 the United States chose to ratify the 1967 United Nations’ Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and therefore became bound by the United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Countries agreeing to ratify this Convention acknowledge they may not expel a refugee to a territory in which their life or freedom could be threatened due to their race, religion or beliefs.

Twelve years later, the United States Refugee Act of 1980 created a refugee resettlement program at the federal level that aimed to help refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. This included providing refugees with employment placement and training, connections with social service agencies, and opportunities to learn English. This Act also placed a focus on humanitarian reasons for refugee resettlement, compared to Cold War-era refugee resettlement policies that focused more on American self-interest.

The number of refugees accepted into the United States declined after September 11, but has recently seen an increase. In 2016, 84,995 refugees were admitted into the United States with the maximum number set at 85,000 – the highest since 1999. About 25 percent of these refugees were resettled in California, Texas and New York.

Despite this large number, public opinion has not always favored resettlement. As of October 26, 2016, data from the Pew Research Center indicated 54 percent of Americans believed the United States did not have a responsibility to accept refugees, compared to 41 percent who believed the United States did have this responsibility. The data also showed a stark contrast between the opinions of Clinton supporters and Trump supporters regarding Syrian refugees specifically; eight percent of Trump supporters felt the United States had a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria, compared with 69 percent of Clinton supporters. Those who were younger and had higher levels of education were also more likely to support refugee resettlement.

Under the current presidential administration, many expected the number of refugees accepted into the United States to decrease. On January 27, 2017 President Trump signed an executive order halting refugee admissions for 120 days in order to review security procedures. The order then was revised on March 6, 2017 to only include seven countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Iraq was later removed from this list. The order is now partially in effect, and bars individuals from the six countries who lack a “bona fide relationship” with a U.S. person or entity from entering the country.

Despite these orders, the trend of declining refugee admissions has reversed; the State Department recently announced it would raise the number of refugees accepted into the United States from approximately 900 per week (46,800 per year) to approximately 1,500 per week (78,000 per year).

A primary concern regarding resettlement is security. Prior to acceptance into the United States, refugees must undergo a rigorous screening process which that includes security checks, interviews, biometric checks and medical checks; this process typically takes 18 to 24 months. A 2016 study conducted by Brookings showed that a majority of Americans (56 percent compared to 43 percent) felt comfortable accepting Syrian refugees or refugees from other Middle Eastern countries as long as these security procedures were in place.

Economic impacts are another concern, as many worry the costs of supporting refugees will lead to a strain on host country resources. In a study from the Tent Foundation, 53 percent of respondents believed refugees would cause an economic burden. An article from PBS Newshour presents both sides of the economic argument. Lower-skilled refugees may lead to a decrease in wages for lower-skilled American workers, as business owners may see refugees as a source of cheaper labor; lower-skilled refugees may also be more dependent on social services. However, many refugees entering the United States are rather highly skilled and are relatively young, both of which will help refugees begin working and contributing to the economy. Refugees, even those who are lower-skilled, also tend to be more likely to accept “4D jobs” – those that are dirty, difficult, (relatively) dangerous and/or dull.

It will be important for policy makers to consider both the benefits and drawbacks of resettlement as they determine the future of refugee resettlement; they must also consider the perspectives of those already living in the United States. By considering all sides of refugee resettlement question, and by providing the public with accurate information as to what refugee resettlement entails, it becomes likely that policy makers will be able to create resettlement policies that are in the best interests of all involved.

Author: Brittany Keegan is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Research interests include nonprofit organizations, immigration policy, and gender-based violence.

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