Lots of Useful Information in the Refugee Report to Congress

By Nayla Rush on December 13, 2019

The president's "Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for FY 2020", released last month, provides us with useful information on the United States' humanitarian approach to displaced populations. I highlight a number of the report's important points below, followed by more detail and longer excerpts on several matters. All quotes are from the report's text.

  • Resettlement is only the tip of the refugee-protection iceberg and should not be the sole barometer to measure U.S. humanitarian efforts. This country is still the world leader when it comes to humanitarian outreach and remains committed to helping millions of refugees and displaced people overseas as well as assisting thousands of asylum-seekers and resettled refugees who are already present on American soil.
  • The U.S. humanitarian approach reaches millions of displaced people worldwide, including those who do not qualify for resettlement. Third-country resettlement is only an "option for certain individuals who cannot return to their home countries or remain in the countries of first asylum." (Emphasis added.)
  • In FY 2020, the United States is expected to receive some 368,000 refugees and asylum claims: 350,000 new asylum claimants and 18,000 resettled refugees under the new refugee admissions ceiling.
  • The United States is witnessing rising asylum claims and backlog that are undermining the integrity of the asylum system. Processing delays harm legitimate asylum seekers and can act as "a pull factor for illegal immigration". The United States received the greatest number of new asylum applications worldwide in calendar years 2017 and 2018 and anticipates receiving 350,000 new asylum claims in FY 2020.
  • The majority of asylum claimants encountered along the U.S. southern border come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, "where poor economic conditions and high levels of generalized violence, while not grounds for asylum under U.S. law, are important 'push factors.' At the same time, certain U.S. laws, judicial rulings, and policies create 'pull factors'."
  • The asylum cooperation agreements (ACAs) that the United States recently concluded with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras as well as the U.S. efforts to help Mexico improve its ability to adjudicate asylum claims and support asylum-seekers, should ease some of the pressure on the U.S. asylum backlog.
  • The estimated cost for refugee resettlement totaled $976 million in FY 2019 and should amount to $892 million in FY 2020. This means that each of the 30,000 resettled refugees in FY 2019 cost American taxpayers an estimated $32,533. And each of the 18,000 refugees to be resettled in FY 2020 is expected to cost American taxpayers $49,555. Admitting fewer refugees can ensure that they receive the appropriate, personalized help necessary to build a successful life in the United States by focusing on better and longer-term care for each one.
  • Starting the end of this month, states and localities can opt out of the refugee resettlement program altogether. This is bound to change the current mapping of states receiving resettled refugees.
  • Instead of pushing for more resettlement, the United States is prioritizing proximity help that gives millions of refugees much-needed assistance as they wait in neighboring countries for a chance to go home and rebuild their post-war countries. The United States is working relentlessly toward putting an end to conflicts to allow the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their home countries, a solution most refugees prefer.
  • To that end, the United States, the top funder of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is revisiting its total reliance on this organization for refugee determination, assistance, and resettlement referrals and is also seeking, as part of a broader UN reform agenda, more transparency and accountability.

Refugee Resettlement Is Only the Tip of the Refugee Protection Iceberg

The United States still leads the humanitarian effort to help refugees and asylees on her soil and abroad. The U.S. humanitarian protection strategy encompasses not just thousands of resettled refugees and asylum seekers on its own territory, but also millions of refugees in host countries close to their homes. U.S. humanitarian assistance reaches tens of millions of displaced and crisis-affected people worldwide, including those who will never be considered or qualify for resettlement in a third country. It provides urgent, life-saving support and services, including food, shelter, health care, education, and access to safe drinking water. As the report notes,

[T]he United States is the largest single provider of humanitarian assistance worldwide, funding the programs of UNHCR, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), IOM, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Programme (WFP), and a number of other international and non-governmental organizations. Total U.S. humanitarian assistance was more than $8 billion in FY 2018, including funding from PRM and the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA).

Refugee resettlement should not be the sole measure of U.S. humanitarian efforts. As underlined in the report to Congress, "[b]oth refugee and asylum status are forms of humanitarian protection offered by the United States." Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, more than 3.7 million refugees and asylees have been welcomed in the United States. In FY 2019, the United States admitted 30,000 refugees and granted asylum to 46,000 asylum seekers.

In FY 2020, the United States anticipates receiving a total of 368,000 new refugees and asylum claims (18,000 resettled refugees and 350,000 asylum claims). The FY 2020 refugee ceiling of 18,000

reflects the urgent need to address the border security and humanitarian crisis caused by the massive surge of aliens seeking protection at the U.S. southern border. It also reflects the backlog of nearly one million asylum-seekers who are awaiting adjudication of their claims inside the United States.

Asylum Backlog Undermines the Integrity of the Asylum System

The United States is witnessing rising asylum claims and backlog:

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United States led the world in the number of new asylum applications received in calendar years 2017 and 2018. In FY 2018, DHS received nearly 100,000 new credible fear cases [compared to only 5,369 in 2009] and over 160,000 new affirmative asylum cases, while the immigration courts received 163,156 new asylum filings.

During the first couple of months of FY 2020,

enforcement actions [any action taken by ICE or CBP to apprehend, arrest, interview, or search an individual, or to surveil an individual for enforcement purposes] on the U.S. southern border with Mexico surpassed 800,000, an increase of over 100 percent over the same time the previous fiscal year. ... This dramatic increase in the number of aliens encountered along or near the U.S. southern border with Mexico corresponds with a sharp increase in the number and percentage of those who claim fear of persecution or torture when apprehended or encountered by DHS. ... The majority of aliens encountered along the U.S. southern border now come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where poor economic conditions and high levels of generalized violence, while not grounds for asylum under U.S. law, are important "push factors." At the same time, certain U.S. laws, judicial rulings, and policies create "pull factors," including the low threshold for determining credible fear, the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA), and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA).

New asylum cases add to the backlog of pending claims and undermine the integrity of the entire asylum system. Processing delays harm legitimate asylum seekers and can act as "a pull factor for illegal immigration". It is true that, by "providing protection from removal, they create an incentive for those without lawful status to enter and remain in the United States. Asylum applicants also may obtain employment authorization after their asylum applications have been pending for six months, creating an incentive to file frivolous or fraudulent asylum applications."

The increasing number of asylum claims also comes with a cost to U.S. government programs. Asylum applicants are eligible for services funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as for federal means-tested public benefits and other assistance provided under state law.

To address this backlog, the U.S. government has undertaken a number of measures:

DHS continues to fill new positions within the USCIS Asylum Division devoted to eliminating the backlog of nearly 540,000 affirmative asylum cases expected at the end of FY 2019. ... DHS will continue to shift some refugee officers to assist the Asylum Division. ... DOJ continues to hire new immigration judges and support staff to reduce the case backlog in the immigration court system, which will include almost 475,000 pending asylum cases at the end of FY 2019. It has hired 150 new immigration judges since the beginning of FY 2018. ... It has also implemented process improvements, such as the use of video teleconferencing, to maximize its existing adjudicatory capacity.

Moreover, and with support from the United States provided through UNHCR,

Mexico is improving its ability to adjudicate asylum claims and support asylum-seekers, including from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Asylum Cooperation Agreements (ACAs) that the United States recently concluded with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, once in force, will further facilitate strengthening their ability to offer protection for refugees and asylum-seekers.

Third-Country Resettlement

There are around 26 million refugees around the world. Only a small fraction needs resettlement. Third-country resettlement is only an "option for certain individuals who cannot return to their home countries or remain in the countries of first asylum." (Emphasis added.) According to UNHCR, 92,400 refugees were resettled to 25 countries in 2018. Other than the United States, the top resettlement countries were Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and France.

Additional screening and vetting procedures were added to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) following the 2017 Executive Order 13780, "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States", which put in place a review of the program. These enhanced security measures "have lengthened processing time for some cases, but they are critical to ensure confidence that refugees granted resettlement in our country are thoroughly vetted."

Unlike asylum seekers who arrive in the United States on their own, refugees who are accepted for resettlement are entitled to reception and placement (R&P) assistance and are sponsored by resettlement agencies under a cooperative agreement with the Department of State:

The Department of State's standard cooperative agreement with each of the resettlement agencies specifies the services the agency must provide, which include housing, essential furnishings, food, necessary clothing, orientation, and assistance with access to other social, medical, and employment services. The R&P Program provides resettlement agencies a one-time payment per refugee to assist with expenses during a refugee's first three months in the United States, but the program anticipates that sponsoring agencies will contribute significant cash or in-kind resources to supplement U.S. government funding.

The Estimated Cost for Refugee Processing and Resettlement

For FY 2019, the estimated cost was $976 million and for the FY 2020, the estimated availability is $892 million (note: portions of these costs can be carried over to the following year). These are direct costs related to the refugee resettlement program that include general expenses, staffing, refugee officers' salary and benefits etc. They do not, however, include indirect services to refugees, such as Medicaid, Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), etc.

A total of 30,000 refugees were resettled in FY 2019. The estimated cost (in this limited sense) for each refugee was $32,533. For a refugee ceiling of 18,000 in FY 2020, provided the ceiling is reached, the estimated cost for each refugee this fiscal year would be $49,555.

This would mean we would be resettling fewer refugees, but spending more on each one. It is important that resettled refugees be provided with every tool possible for successful integration. This administration can ensure that every refugee admitted receives the appropriate, personalized help necessary to build a successful life in the United States, even if that means admitting fewer refugees and focusing on better and longer-term care for those who are admitted.

Where Are the Refugees Resettled?

Resettlement agency representatives, while "seeking to match the particular needs of each incoming refugee with the specific resources available in U.S. communities", determine where refugees are to be initially resettled in the United States.

In FY 2017, the top states (with more than 3 percent of total arrivals) where refugees were initially resettled were:

California 9.61 percent
Texas 8.88 percent
New York 5.77 percent
Washington 5.44 percent
Ohio 5.34 percent
Michigan 4.72 percent
Arizona 4.19 percent
Pennsylvania 4.00 percent
North Carolina 3.57 percent
Georgia 3.48 percent
Illinois 3.17 percent
Florida 3.16 percent
Minnesota 3.03 percent
Kentucky 3.01 percent

In FY 2018, the top states were:

Texas 7.52 percent
Washington 6.86 percent
Ohio 6.26 percent
California 6.09 percent
New York 5.70 percent
Arizona 4.44 percent
North Carolina 4.17 percent
Pennsylvania 4.03 percent
Kentucky 3.98 percent
Georgia 3.72 percent
Minnesota 3.21 percent
Illinois 3.14 percent

In FY 2019, the top states were:

Texas 8.19 percent
Washington 6.49 percent
New York 6.15 percent
California 6.13 percent
Kentucky 4.76 percent
Ohio 4.75 percent
North Carolina 4.19 percent
Arizona 4.05 percent
Georgia 3.96 percent
Michigan 3.82 percent
Pennsylvania 3.64 percent
Illinois 3.35 percent


This listing is likely to change in FY 2020, since, following the Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement that enters into effect this December 26, state and local governments must consent to receiving refugees before they are placed in their communities. The reasoning behind this executive order is explained in the FY 2020 Report to Congress:

Close cooperation with state and local governments ensures that refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and labor force. State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement, which maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance.

Many state governors had objected to receiving Syrian refugees back in 2015. Those were the governors of: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

States whose governors in 2015 said they would accept Syrian refugees were: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington.

Following President Trump's recent executive order giving state and local governments the possibility to opt out of the program altogether, a number of governors expressed their commitment to resettling refugees in their communities. Those are, to date, the governors of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. The New York Times recently reported that an official with a refugee-resettlement contractor "said about 16 governors have submitted written consent, six of them Republicans."

Proximity Help and Focus on Ending Conflicts

Proximity help — i.e., assistance to refugees in their home region — and working toward the safe and voluntary return of refugees have been the focus of the Trump administration since day one:

[W]e will continue to lead the world in humanitarian assistance, that we will continue to catalyze responses to man-made and natural disasters, and that we will support displaced people as close to their homes as possible to help meet their needs until they can safely and voluntarily return home. By focusing on ending the conflicts that drive displacement in the first place, and by providing assistance overseas to prevent further displacement, we can help prevent the destabilizing effects of such displacement on affected countries and their neighbors.

The Trump administration is reinventing a broken refugee system. It is committing to better assist refugees in their region while concentrating its efforts on ending conflicts and securing the safe return of refugees. This policy (rather than a resettlement-based one) could give millions autonomy and opportunity and render them better equipped to rebuild their post-war countries when it is time for them to go home:

The U.S. approach allows us to help many more vulnerable people, and do so much more rapidly, than we could ever hope to help through resettlement in the United States. In addition, helping displaced people in areas close to their homes facilitates their return when conditions allow. This enables them to participate in rebuilding their homelands, promoting recovery and long-term stability of those countries and their neighbors.

UN Reform Agenda: No More Blank Checks, but More Transparency and Accountability

The United States is revising its total reliance on the UNHCR for refugee determination, assistance, and resettlement referrals at a time when stories about alleged corruption in refugee resettlement at the UNHCR are being published, and widespread reports of UNHCR staffers accepting bribes from refugees in order to refer them for resettlement in a Western country are being documented.

The new system will allow refugees (including religious minorities and Iraqis) to apply for resettlement directly to U.S. authorities; U.S. embassies abroad will be playing a more active role:

The P-1 cases [Priority 1: Individual Referrals] are identified and referred to the USRAP by U.S. embassy, UNHCR, or a designated non-governmental organization (NGO). UNHCR has historically referred the vast majority of P-1 cases; however, USRAP will no longer accept referrals from UNHCR except in the categories listed in this year's allocation in the Presidential Determination. Some NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in locations where there are large concentrations of refugees are eligible to provide P-1 referrals. A U.S. ambassador may make a P-1 referral for persons still in their country of origin if the ambassador determines that such cases are in need of exceptional treatment, and the Department of State and DHS concur.

The United States remains the lead source of funding for humanitarian assistance in the numerous refugee crises around the world. In FY 2018 alone, the U.S. contribution to UNHCR "reached a historic high of nearly $1.6 billion to support UNHCR's response to historic levels of displacement and humanitarian need." However, as part of a broader UN reform agenda, the United States expects in return more accountability, transparency, and efficiency:

Even as we remain the world's largest humanitarian contributor, the United States expects other governments to share in the burden. ... We will work to better target the application of our humanitarian assistance funds. Also, as part of our broader UN reform agenda, we will seek to maximize the value of U.S. contributions to humanitarian organizations by driving reforms to make such organizations more effective, efficient, transparent, and accountable.