Refugees are people who have fled their countries of origin to escape persecution. Today we see worldwide refugee levels at the highest ever recorded, with one in every 122 humans either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This includes an ever-increasing number of Syrian refugees that has now reached 4 million, confirming it as the world’s single largest refugee crisis for almost 25 years. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, the U.S. government admitted 69,933 refugees to the United States, just shy of meeting the goal of 70,000 admissions for the fiscal year. 7,200 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) were admitted, surpassing the goal of 7,000 projected for FY 2015. LIRS was privileged to welcome 10,514 of these vulnerable people–9,519 refugees and 995 SIVs, walking alongside them to establish new lives in American communities.
In response to international attention surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, President Obama announced a small, yet significant increase in refugee admissions for Fiscal Year 2016 from 70,000 to 85,000 refugees—including at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Yet the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 led to intense scrutiny of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, resulting in several detrimental legislative proposals that would essentially stop refugee resettlement for those fleeing persecution in Syria and Iraq. For more information, summaries of legislation are included below.
While ORR was originally established to serve resettled refugees and asylees (individuals in the United States who have been granted asylum), its mandate has expanded tremendously to include a wide array of the world’s most vulnerable people such as: individuals who having risked their lives for the United States by serving alongside U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa; certain survivors of torture and human trafficking; and Cuban-Haitian entrants. In addition, ORR also ensures the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children and unaccompanied refugee minors.
Challenges in the Refugee Resettlement Program
The U.S. refugee resettlement program has not benefited from many needed reforms since it was created more than three decades ago. This means the funding and infrastructure of the program has not kept pace with the program’s evolving mandate and challenging refugee trends. The program serves many refugees who are able to find jobs and integrate quickly, while others may require more assistance and services.
Examples of such funding challenges include:
- Appropriate funds have not been allocated to match the increase announced by President Obama in refugee admissions for Fiscal Year 2016 from 70,000 to 85,000–including at least 10,000 refugees fleeing Syria. Funding is critical to ensure local communities have the resources they need to help refugees integrate and thrive as they rebuild their lives.
- In Fiscal Year 2014, due to a lack of funding, ORR was forced to reprogram funds for programs serving resettled refugees to programs that care for children arriving from Central America alone. Although all funds for refugee programs were eventually released, their withholding greatly affected critical programs serving resettled refugees, including those assisting school-age refugee children and preventative health grants for vulnerable populations.
- The Matching Grant program provides refugees, asylees, Special Immigrant Visa holders from Iraq and Afghanistan, and victims of trafficking the tools they need to become economically self-sufficient within their first six months in the United States. This program has not had an increase in the amount funded per capita since 2000 when it was raised to $2,200 per month. Based on the United States government’s consumer price index (CPI) calculator, today’s equivalent to $2,200 in 2000 is $2,800.
Another challenge to the resettlement program is that over the last three decades, refugee populations arriving to the United States have changed significantly. In the early 1980’s, the majority of refugees admitted to the United States were fleeing conflicts in Southeast Asia. Today, the refugee population is more diverse and vulnerable, with over 60 nationalities represented in FY 2014 arrivals. With ongoing conflicts in almost every region in the world, we are witnessing refugee populations with increased needs including single-women-headed households, survivors of torture and trauma, and those with severe medical and mental health needs. The resettlement of these populations in the United States falls under the mandate of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the Administration for Children and Families division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
LIRS advocates for a flexible resettlement program and robust funding that meet the needs of all vulnerable refugees eligible for service. As a nation that has historically stood for newcomers in need of protection, we should honor our history by ensuring appropriate and flexible funding to compassionately welcome all vulnerable people. Modernizing the refugee resettlement program and providing adequate funding to the resettlement process will help refugees successfully integrate into modern society. Changes to the system should reflect these principles:
- Community engagement is critical throughout the different stages of refugee resettlement—protection, stabilization and integration.
- Family unity and family reunification are basic human rights and are essential for long-term integration.
- Federally-funded programs should be outcome-driven, with basic standards and the flexibility to be responsive to the diverse strengths and needs of refugees arriving today.
- Federal agencies should improve coordination to better capitalize on the strengths of the various federal and non-federal actors to limit duplication of effort and maximize impact.
On December 1, 2014, the U.S. State Department announced the official launch of an in-country refugee processing program for some children in certain Central American countries. The program allows parents with lawful presence in the United States to apply for their children living in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras to come to the United States as refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Children who do not meet the definition of a refugee, but are still at risk of harm, may be eligible on a case-by-case basis to travel to the United States safely and legally as humanitarian parolees. Those who are granted refugee or parolee status through this program are able to enter the United States in a safe, legal, and orderly fashion rather than embarking on the dangerous journey to the United States in search of safety.
To apply, an eligible parent in the United States must complete an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) and file it with a State Department approved resettlement agency. The application is not available online. A directory of eligible resettlement agencies, along with additional information on the program, can be found here. Applications are now being processed.
LIRS urges robust support for the CAM program, while also recognizing that it is only one protection tool with a very limited scope that will aid a small number of child refugees in Central America. LIRS understands that many children and families from Central America are in immediate peril and will continue to make the difficult journey to the United States in search of safety. The establishment of the CAM program should not foreclose other avenues to life-saving protection, especially where the current parameters of the program are so limited in scope. Under no circumstances should children or others seeking protection be turned away at the U.S. border, or at other borders along the migration route, and denied access to protection.
We provide the following recommendations to ensure maximum success of the program:
- At this time, the CAM program is available only to children determined to be in danger of persecution who have parents with lawful presence in the United States. This limited scope restricts protection to a very small segment of the children who desperately need it. Consideration should be given to expanding eligibility to vulnerable populations such as at-risk children and families without family members with lawful presence in the United States.
- We are concerned that children applying for the CAM program face danger in their home country during the application process, before they can complete the requirements. We recommend establishing mechanisms to ensure child applicants and their families are safe while their cases make their way through the in-country process.
- Transportation and safe shelter should be provided for eligible children who do not live in the capital cities where processing takes place. If these opportunities are not available, many children who would otherwise benefit from the program will be excluded due to logistical obstacles that could easily be addressed.
- The U.S. government should expand the same critical follow-up services available to other refugees to children and families paroled into the United States through the CAM program.
Legislation in the 114th Congress
Introduced by Senators Graham (R-SC) and Leahy (D-VT), this bipartisan bill would provide an additional $1 billion in emergency funding to respond to the current refugee crisis in the Middle East. This supplemental funding is critical financial support for refugee protection, screening and resettlement.
Introduced by Representative Vargas (D-CA), this bill would make the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program more accessible to persecuted groups in Iraq and Syria, including individuals facing gender-based violence and religious and ethnic minorities fleeing ISIS, by allowing them direct access to the refugee admissions process. The legislation would also open additional processing entities in the region, increase staff for processing refugee applications, and streamline existing systems for conducting background and security checks.
Reintroduced by Representative Ellison (D-MN), this bill would provide increased protections and services to all categories of refugees, including expanded case management services for highly vulnerable refugees and increased funding for housing, employment, and healthcare integration grants. The bill would also admit refugees as legal permanent residents (refugees currently must wait a year to apply for this status) and remove the expiration of supplemental security income benefits for elderly and vulnerable refugees.
Introduced by Senators Stabenow (D-MI), King (I-ME) and Peters (D-MI), this bill mandates an assessment of the well-being of refugees resettled to the United States through required analysis of the challenges refugees and communities face and the effectiveness of efforts to help refugees attain self-sufficiency. It also revises federal funding to states and local resettlement organizations to ensure that communities and refugees receive appropriate levels of assistance. To improve the services available to refugees, the bill also expands data collection and reporting regarding refugees’ mental health and medical needs, housing needs, and long-term employment and self-sufficiency. Representative Pascrell (D-NJ) introduced a companion bill (H.R. 2839) in the House of Representatives.
Introduced by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) in March 2016, this bill would prioritize the resettlement of Syrian religious minorities over all other Syrian refugees. If passed, refugee resettlement for Syrians would no longer be determined based on critical and pressing need of the most vulnerable; rather it would essentially require a religious litmus test that denies access to protection solely on the basis of religious identification.
Introduced by Representatives Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), this bill would negatively impact the lives of refugees around the world and drastically alter, if not destroy, the refugee resettlement system in the United States. This bill seeks to drastically reduce refugee resettlement by capping admissions at 60,000 per year, regardless of need; place refugees under continual surveillance after they have arrived; allow state and local governments who “disapprove” of refugees to veto resettlement in their localities; and restrict access to resettlement for many vulnerable Muslim refugees under the guise of prioritizing religious minorities.
Introduced by Representative McCaul (R-TX), this bill would immediately end the refugee resettlement system in the Syria and Iraq region and leave vulnerable refugees, including women and children fleeing ISIS, in extreme danger. The bill calls for superfluous security measures that would render the refugee resettlement system inoperable. LIRS believes our commitment to welcoming refugees and the security of the American people are not mutually exclusive. HR 4038 was passed in the House on November 18, 2015. Senator Johnson (R-WI) introduced a companion bill (S.2300) on the same day. This bill is provisionally dead due to a failed vote for cloture on January 20, 2016.
Introduced by Representative McCaul (R-TX), this bill would place the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) on hold until Congress passes a joint resolution on refugee admissions numbers each year. Given the climate of gridlock, Congressional inaction or delay could have life or death consequences for refugees awaiting resettlement. This legislation also prioritizes religious minorities from Iraq and Syria for resettlement at the expense or complete rejection of Muslim refugees and individuals of other faiths.
Introduced by Representative Babin (R-TX), this bill, like H.R. 3573, would shut down the refugee admissions program until Congress passes a joint resolution that gives the Department of Homeland Security authority to resume admitting refugees. The bill also requires study on how many refugees use public benefits, for how long, how many pay taxes in their first year in the U.S., and the various costs to public assistance programs.
The Refugee Protection Act of 2013 (S. 645)
Introduced in the 113th Congress by Senator Leahy (D-VT), this bill was intended to update U.S. laws on the refugee and asylum process which currently contains bars to the forms of protection so many vulnerable populations desperately need. The bill would eliminate the one-year asylum filing deadline, require improvements in the conditions of immigration detention, and protect victims of terrorism in their country of origin from being wrongly denied asylum and related protection in the United States. Representative Lofgren (D-CA) introduced a companion to this bill in the House.
This bill was the Senate’s most recent comprehensive immigration reform legislation. This bill passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support and would have increased efficiency, justice and transparency in the refugee resettlement system in addition to strengthening refugee family unity. In June 2013, S.744 was passed by the Senate but never voted on by the House. For more information on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill visit LIRS’s website.
- LIRS FAQ: CAM AOR – In-country Processing for Central American Children
- LIRS Statement for the record on Security and Oversight of the Syrian Refugee Admissions Program
- U.S. Department of State 2015 Refugee Resettlement Fact Sheet
- LIRS Backgrounder on Refugee Legislation in the 114th Congress
- LIRS Statement for the record “Eroding the Law and Diverting Taxpayer Resources: An Examination of the Administration’s Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program”
- LIRS Statement on H.R. 2798 The Strengthening Refugee Resettlement Act
- LIRS Backgrounder on H.R. 1568 The Protection of Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act
- Past LIRS Statement on The Refugee Protection Act
- Interfaith Sign-On Letter Requesting Protection for Central American Refugees
- LIRS Backgrounder
- Toolkit for Refugee Advocacy
How You Can Help
- Join the Stand for Welcome campaign to stay updated on refugee resettlement advocacy
- Visit LIRS’s Action Center to support refugee resettlement legislation
- Volunteer to create welcoming communities for refugees
- Learn more by reading “The Real Cost of Welcome: A Financial Analysis of Refugee Reception”