Extending ORR Benefits and Beneficiaries

By Nayla Rush on April 25, 2022

On March 31, 2022, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), Cindy Huang, announced the extension of the Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) and Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) programs from eight to 12 months, effective immediately. This applies to all participants whose date of eligibility for ORR benefits is on or after October 1, 2021 (which is the beginning of FY 2022).

The Refugee Act of 1980 allowed for cash and medical assistance to be provided to “any refugee during the thirty-six month period beginning with the first month in which such refugee has entered the United States”, but funding limitations have “historically limited RCA and RMA to eight months of benefits”.

As Huang explained:

This change is momentous because it means that refugees, and all the populations eligible for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) services ... will have the opportunity to potentially receive up to four additional months of assistance. [Emphasis added.]

Huang went on to add: “Most of the refugee populations ORR serves are fleeing from an unsafe or traumatic experience in their home countries.”

There seems to be a misunderstanding of refugee issues here. Millions of refugees flee their countries of war to take refuge in nearby countries. Obviously, not all refugees can be resettled in the United States (or other countries that take part in the United Nations resettlement program). The essence of refugee resettlement is to welcome refugees who are genuinely at risk in the countries they've fled to.

Here’s how the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines resettlement:

Resettlement is the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another State, that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent residence.

Many refugees cannot go home because of continued conflict, wars and persecution. Many also live in perilous situations or have specific needs that cannot be addressed in the country where they have sought protection. In such circumstances, UNHCR helps resettle refugees to a third country. [Emphasis added.]

But Huang’s description of the populations ORR serves is rather telling. It is true that ORR has somewhat lost its focus on resettled refugees and is more and more diverting its resources to various other populations (like border-crossers from Central America and others) who are not fleeing danger but looking for opportunities, a chance of a better life in the United States.

Helping resettled refugees for longer periods as they get integrated into a new system is not a bad thing. And as I wrote a few years ago, assisting refugees during their first eight months here might not be sufficient.

For traumatized people who have suffered a lot, integration is especially tough. The notion that all refugees can easily integrate into Western societies and live happily ever after is an illusion. And refugees are not interchangeable; some are better equipped to integrate and others need ongoing assistance. Economic achievements, for instance, vary by nationality. For three groups of refugees — Iraqis, Somalis, and Cubans — longer U.S. residence does not equate with higher income, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.

It is important that resettled refugees be provided with every tool possible for successful integration. This could mean admitting fewer refugees and focusing on better and longer-term care for each one.

ORR Benefits

Through the 1980 Refugee Act, Congress directed the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF), to provide “refugees with resettlement assistance that includes employment training, English language training, cash assistance (in a manner that promotes early self-sufficiency), and job placement”.

Since its establishment in 1980, the refugee resettlement program has been “justified on the grounds that the admission of refugees is a federal decision, entailing some federal responsibility”. Unlike other immigrants admitted to the country through family or employment ties, refugees (and multiple other categories) are admitted on humanitarian grounds and are not required to demonstrate economic self-sufficiency.

ORR defines “economic self-sufficiency” as “earning a total family income that enables a family unit to support itself without receipt of a cash assistance grant”. But even with no cash assistance, a “self-sufficient” refugee (or any ORR beneficiary) can and often does rely on other, non-cash public benefit programs such as food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, refugees tend to receive more public benefits than the U.S.-born population even 20 years after resettlement.

ORR’s mission is to “help refugees transition into the United States by providing benefits and assistance to achieve integration as soon as possible”. To that end, ORR funds and administers a number of programs, including Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance:

Refugees not eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or those pending receipt of Supplemental Security Income are eligible to receive Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) upon arrival. Refugees not eligible for Medicaid are eligible to receive Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) upon arrival.

RCA and RMA are administered by states and Replacement Designees, who are private entities designated by ORR to administer the refugee program in a state that has withdrawn from administration of the program. In state-administered programs that operate a publicly administered RCA program, RCA benefits are based on cash benefit levels established by state TANF programs. In states that operate their RCA program through a Public-Private Program model, the RCA benefit is based on the higher of the RCA rates outlined in the ORR regulations or the state TANF rates.

ORR Beneficiaries

All persons with the following statuses (not just resettled refugees) are eligible for Refugee Resettlement Program benefits and services:

  1. Individuals paroled as refugees or asylees. [In this context, a refugee is someone who was granted refugee status abroad but who was not admitted into the United States under the Refugee Resettlement Program; an asylee is a person “who meets the definition of refugee and is already present in the United States or is seeking admission at a port of entry” and for whom the asylum status was not yet granted, hence the need for parole.]
  2. Refugees [resettled refugees].
  3. Asylees whose status was granted.
  4. Cuban and Haitian entrants.
  5. Lawful permanent residents provided the individuals previously held one of the statuses identified above.
  6. Certain Amerasians from Vietnam who are admitted to the United States as immigrants.
  7. Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrants. [Special Immigrant Visa holders or SIVs are granted a green card on their day of arrival in the United States, while refugees have to apply for a green card one year after admission. Asylees need to be physically present in the United States for at least one year after being granted asylum to be able to apply for a green card.]
  8. Victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons per the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.

In addition to unaccompanied minors in the above categories, the following are eligible for the ORR Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) Program:

  1. Unaccompanied Minor with Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).
  2. Unaccompanied Minor who has been granted U status.

Also, and in most cases, spouses and unmarried children under 21 of those holding the statuses described above.

Another category of people was recently added to this list of beneficiaries: Afghan parolees.

Some 75,000 Afghan nationals were evacuated from Afghanistan by the U.S. government under “Operation Allies Refuge” following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in July and August 2021. Most were not Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders or applicants (visas available to Afghan interpreters/translators or "allies", i.e., those who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government and who faced a serious threat as a result of that employment) nor were they granted refugee status. They were simply “paroled” into the United States without a visa.

Parolees have limited access to benefits and, unlike refugees and SIVs, they are not eligible for refugee resettlement assistance or other federal benefits. However, a bill approved by Congress in September 2021 gave all Afghan parolees (current and future) access to resettlement assistance, entitlement programs, and other benefits.

Clearly, the population eligible for ORR assistance — and not just the duration of the assistance — is expanding.

Funding: Transitional/Cash and Medical Services

The cost of the Transitional/Cash and Medical Services Program under the Refugee and Entrant Assistance program is as follows:

Refugee Resettlement Assistance Funding for Transitional/Cash and Medical Services, FY 2009-FY 2018 (budget authority in millions of dollars):

  • FY 2009 Enacted $282.3
  • FY 2010 Actual $353.3
  • FY 2011 Enacted $352.6
  • FY 2012 Actual $323.2
  • FY 2013 Enacted $401.1
  • FY 2014 Actual $391.5
  • FY 2015 Actual $383.3
  • FY 2016 Final $532.0
  • FY 2017 Final $490.0
  • FY 2018 Final $244.9

Transitional and Medical Services: FY 2019-FY 2022:

  • FY 2019 Final $320,000
  • FY 2020 Final: $326,000
  • FY 2021 Final $224,000
  • FY 2022 president’s budget: $605,000

ORR Director

Cindy Huang was named the new director of ORR in Mach 2021. Huang holds a PhD in sociocultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley; an MPA in development studies from Princeton University; and a BA in ethics, politics and economics from Yale University.

Prior to joining ORR, Huang was the vice president of strategic outreach for Refugees International, where she launched the “Refugee Advocacy Lab”. The lab was co-founded with International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the Refugee Congress. Refugee Congress is fiscally sponsored by Church World Service (CWS) and is working toward establishing itself as an independent non-profit group.

IRC and CWS are two of the nine religious or community-based organizations, called “resettlement agencies”, that have contracts with the Department of State to resettle refugees inside the United States. Resettlement agencies are mostly funded by the U.S. government, i.e. by American taxpayers.

These agencies maintain nationwide networks of local affiliates to provide services to refugees, including reception on arrival in the United States, placement, support with housing, community orientation, help accessing health services, enrollment in various benefit and welfare programs, employment, etc.

Before joining Refugees International, Huang co-directed the Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy program at the Center for Global Development. She also served in the Obama administration as director of policy of the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and as senior advisor to the State Department’s counselor and chief of staff.

Topics: Refugees