Refugees to the United States: Policy Uncertainty Taking Hold

Last week a US State Department official notified refugee groups worldwide that they could begin bringing refugees into the United States through the usual multi-year process “unconstrained by the weekly quotas that were in place” under previous US legal and budgetary requirements. The decision undercuts the executive order issued in January by US President Donald Trump to suspend immediately all refugee admissions for a period of at least four months and to lower the ceiling on the number of refugees allowed annually from 110,000 to 50,000.

  • The original and subsequent revision to Trump’s executive order have faced legal stays and generated a condition of uncertainty that has contributed to a decline in the number of refugees entering the United States. The total number of refugees from February 2017 through April 2017 was nearly 60 percent, or about 6,800 refugees, lower than for the same period of 2016.
  • In the first half of the 2017 fiscal year—October 2016 through April 2017—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Burma made up 60 percent of refugee arrivals to the United States. This group of countries has been relatively stable in recent years, although in 2016, refugees from Syria recorded the highest growth rate, increasing by nearly 11,000 refugees compared to 2015.
  • Notably, by April 2017, the total number of refugees from a few countries—including the Ukraine and El Salvador—had already surpassed their totals from 2016.
The inflow of people to the United States is broad, but within this general category of people displaced by war, persecution, and similar unsafe and intolerable living conditions, our focus expands from refugees to include asylum seekers. 
  • According to Refugee Act of 1980, a refugee is a person with a "well-founded fear of persecution" for reasons including religion, nationality, race, political opinion. During the 2016 fiscal year, almost 85,000 refugees arrived in the United States, roughly 20 percent more than during 2015 and the largest number of arrivals since 2001, and yet only a small share of the more than 16 million people who left their homes as refugees in 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
  • The UNHCR defines asylum-seekers as "individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined, irrespective of when they may have been lodged". Nearly 125,000 asylum-seekers entered the US in 2016, led by individuals from Venezuela, China, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. A sharp increase in 2013 has been subsequently followed by 30,000 additional asylum seekers annually.
  • Unlike the number of refugees to the US so far this year, according to the UNHCR, the number of asylum-seekers reached 16,400 in March, a new all-time record and an increase of 4,700 from February.
Given the population and geographic size of the United States and the resettlement trends for refugees and asylum seekers Americans have vastly different experience levels in opening their communities to these new residents, creating a requirement on state and federal governments, resettlement organizations, and others in the community to share information and educate citizens. 
  • During the last decade, for example, communities in California and Texas have topped the list by number of refugees, receiving a combined total of almost 20 percent of all refugees to the United States each year.
  • Use today’s Viz of the Day to learn more about the flow of refugees to the United States and perhaps explore the World Data Atlas to learn still more about the countries of origin for these vulnerable populations.
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