Table of Contents
Key Terms 41
The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program overseas
- Delays, lack of information, and difficult waiting conditions make a lengthy USRAP process more burdensome
- Varying availability of information on travel and domestic resettlement, creates anxiety and hampers refugees’ ability to mentally prepare for their next steps
- Focus on early employment for refugees can delay long-term gains
- After R&P, refugees faced many challenges on their own
- Community members are integral to refugee resettlement and have shown they are capable of playing a larger role
- R&P and ORR programs emphasize compliance rather than outcomes
- A paper-based process and misaligned program goals impede RA’s ability to track refugees’ resettlement progress across government agencies (DOS & HHS)
Current state of domestic infrastructure
- Resettlement agency arrival planning is hampered by decreased pipeline visibility and inconsistent arrival patterns
- Reduced admissions paired with new PRM restrictions have resulted in a dramatic reduction in local resettlement capacity
Scaling to meet the needs of FY21 PD of 125K
- RAs have the flexibility to ramp up, but require up-front financial support to scale operations and open new offices
- Resettling higher numbers of refugees will necessitate advance coordination between RAs, PRM and local communities
Strengthening the Domestic Resettlement Program
- Recalibrate up-front resettlement support to recognize refugee needs, build self-sufficiency, and invest in long-term gains
- Develop an integration policy to inform increased cooperation between PRM and ORR
- Reorient domestic resettlement towards a strategic, holistic, data-informed approach to facilitating refugee integration
- Offer flexible funding to serve individual needs and encourage innovation
- Launch a campaign to educate Americans about refugee resettlement
Opportunities for Technologists
- Refugee-facing case status tracker offering useful information on overseas case progress and next steps
- Algorithmic-informed allocations system that accounts for integration measures as well as refugee preferences
- System for tracking a refugee’s resettlement progress from PRM through ORR and capturing integration measures
- Single point of entry tool for co-sponsorship sign-up, vetting, and matching with local RAs; to include standardized and digitized training materials
Key Steps of USRAP
This section provides an overview of the main steps a refugee participates in when going through USRAP. Our information on the overseas process was informed by agency websites, scholarly articles, and from speaking to resettlement agencies, and former USG and RSC staff. We did not have the opportunity to interview anyone who conducts RSC or USCIS circuit rides, nor unfortunately, were we able to travel overseas to observe the case process due to the current global pandemic. While a very brief overview of U.S. domestic resettlement is offered here, further details are provided in the The U.S. Domestic Resettlement Program section of this report.
Referral to USRAP
Our research focused on the experience of UNHCR-referred refugees who currently constitute about 64% of referrals to USRAP. Refugees can also enter USRAP through two other avenues: NGO referrals, and U.S. Embassy referrals.
A refugee’s first step is to register with UNHCR, which enables them to get identity documentation that can afford some measure of protection in their host country, as well as allow them limited access to UNHCR services. Next, they undergo a UNHCR refugee status determination interview and a resettlement interview. Depending on the region some of these steps may happen on the same day or they may take place several days or even months apart. UNHCR refers a very small percentage of refugees who qualify for resettlement to the U.S. Less than 1% of refugees are resettled worldwide.
Pre-screening interview with Resettlement Support Center (RSC)
After UNHCR refers a refugee to be resettled to the United States, a Resettlement Support Center (RSC) will contact the refugee to schedule a pre-screen interview. At this point in time, the RSC will open a case file for the refugee and their status will be tracked in the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS). During this interview, the RSC collects a refugee’s biodata, family tree information, and case history which includes the core components of their refugee status claim. The first two components of the interview, collecting biodata and family tree information, can be challenging if a refugee has mismatching identification (such as birth certificates or passports) or doesn’t have exact contact information for their relatives. The information collected during this interview will be used to complete the form I-590, a security document used for several checks. Any inaccuracies in this information can cause major delays in a refugee’s case.
During the interview, the RSC will generally outline the rest of the resettlement process and provide a rough estimate for when the USCIS Adjudication Interview could occur. The refugee will also be asked if they have a contact in the United States that would support their resettlement. This contact is called a “U.S. tie” and will determine the location for resettlement in the U.S. At many RSCs, refugees will be provided a website and email that can be accessed to check the status of their case, however the information provided to the refugee through these channels are limited.
In the background, while the refugee is waiting, USCIS, DoS, FBI, and other IC partners kick off a series of security checks. Depending on the age, sex, and country of origin, there will be additional security checks required that will often delay case approval for months. Generally, the security checks are cleared before the USCIS interview, but there are exceptions. At any point in time if a refugee contacts the RSC to edit their personal information, for example to give notice that they had a child and provide their biometric information, security checks will be restarted.
Adjudication interview with USCIS Refugee Officer
On average, a refugee will wait 115 days (FY2011-FY2016 stat) between the RSC pre-screen interview and the scheduling of a USCIS interview. During the USCIS interview, a Refugee Officer will meet the refugee at a secure location within a refugee camp or closer to their local communities to conduct a two to four hour interview. During this interview, the officer will verify the refugee’s identity, evaluate existing security concerns, and establish past persecution or well-founded fear. This will likely be the fifth or sixth time a refugee is telling their story of past persecution or well founded fear, which can be a traumatic experience. At this point, the officer will also correct any information on the form I-590 that was initially completed during the RSC interview.
Any updated information will prompt security checks to be re-run and will delay case progression. If security checks are not completed at the time of the USCIS interview, a case will be placed on hold and will require a follow-up interview to clear any potentially derogatory information found during the checks. This process can also delay the case by months, or even years during the current administration, as Refugee Officers may not travel to the region often.
Case approval and pre-departure
Refugees typically receive a letter alerting them that their case has been approved. This approval is conditional on them passing one or a series of mandatory medical exams (depending on the region) before departure. Refugees often travel to a city outside of the refugee camp to receive this exam from an IOM-approved doctor. On the same day(s) they may also attend an RSC-led cultural orientation (where available), which explains the travel process and is intended to teach them what they need to know to arrive safely in the U.S. IOM is in charge of booking the refugee’s travel to the U.S. and will alert them when their departure date is set. On the day of travel, IOM representatives meet refugees at each of their transfer points.
Resettling in the U.S.
Before refugees travel to the U.S. they are assigned to a local Resettlement Agency (RA) who will receive them, help them meet their basic needs, and assist them to set up their lives in the U.S. During the first three months a caseworker will sign them up for longer-term services to support employment, language acquisition, medical and mental health services, long-term case management, as well as cash assistance for food and housing. Through early job placement and with the help of social services, refugees are typically expected to be self-sufficient and able to pay their own rent within 90-180 days of their arrival.
The Refugee Experience of USRAP
During the course of our research we interviewed ten people who arrived in the U.S. as refugees and two who came on Special Immigrant Visas, (making them eligible for the same travel and domestic resettlement services offered to refugees). In this report we refer to all of these individuals as participants to preserve their anonymity. Our participants came to the U.S. from eleven different countries between 1995 and 2019, with the majority arriving roughly ten years ago. Given the passage of time, it’s possible they didn’t recall every detail of the process, but they talked about the events and feelings that stood out to them. Their experiences of applying to the U.S. for resettlement and of being resettling in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Ohio, Tennessee, and North Carolina inform the insights in this section.
Long waits and case processing times were exacerbated by difficult conditions
“The conditions were unlike what I’ve ever seen. It was a straw hut or bamboo house. Everything was handmade and made for a temporary stay, and we were there for 4 years. I remember some people who (would) wait so long and never really get to America, it was all luck. Over there you couldn’t go to school, mostly my mom taught me English. She was a teacher. My dad worked here and there but it wasn’t a good job. We survived from my mom and dad working every combination of job they could find.” — P10
Most of our participants lived in refugee camps while their cases wound their way through USRAP. Some had already spent 3, 5, 13, 15… years —half their lives—in refugee camps before being referred to the U.S. for resettlement. Subsequently, they spent on average an additional two years waiting for their case to be processed and to be resettled.
Refugees often don’t have legal authority to work in their host countries. Participants who were able to work took odd jobs or held positions with NGOs as social workers, reproductive health educators, and managers of camp operations. Some camps had schools for children and GED classes for adults, others did not. Having fled in a hurry and on foot, participants had few material possessions and little or no money. They relied on the camp to provide for all their needs. As one participant put it, “Life in a refugee camp depends on other people. Everything is decided by other people.”
Many participants fled their home countries to escape violence, yet personal security remained a daily concern. The environments where they lived could be quite contentious, as frequently the citizenry of their host country held negative views of refugees. One participant spent eight months inside a safe house, during which time she couldn’t communicate with family and only left to participate in USRAP interviews. Another participant recounted forming a neighborhood watch group with others in his camp in Kenya to protect themselves from armed groups that would come at night to rob and kidnap people. He described having nightmares about this even after he left.
Years spent living in a state of limbo affected people’s well-being. A participant who became a refugee as a teenager told us he’d hoped to go to college and to train for a career. Over a period of ten years he made numerous attempts to obtain an interview with UNHCR without luck. He explained, “there would be a back and forth with them and then the officer would change multiple times over.” Eventually he gave up trying.
Medical issues and security checks caused cascading delays
Several participants had their cases delayed by medical issues or the security check of a family member, prompting RSC staff to give families the option to split up and travel to the U.S. at different times. Family members who were presented with this choice said they had opted to stay together —even if it meant a longer wait. In these instances, participants sometimes had to repeat steps they’d already completed because security, medical, or other requirements had expired.
One participant recounted that he was the oldest child in a family of nine who had all finished their USCIS interviews. During the pre-departure medical exam, his mother tested positive for TB and was prescribed a 9-month course of medication. While the rest of the family was cleared for travel, they couldn’t imagine leaving their mother who spoke no English, to undertake the journey to the U.S. alone. They asked to have their cases held until she could accompany them. Nine months later, the entire family had to submit to a new series of medical screenings because their previous ones had since expired.
Another participant who was the recipient of a Special Immigrant Visa was given the option to travel to the U.S. alone with her two young children, because her husband’s case was further delayed due to security checks. She declined. An additional six months went by before the family was booked for travel and she arrived in the U.S. just a few days before her visa expired.
“I understand that the background process is harder for men, but sending a family without a husband is not convenient. Imagine going somewhere with a new culture, a new life without your emotional support”. — P5
A lack of understanding of the case process made participants feel powerless and led to misinformation
Once a refugee is referred for resettlement in the U.S., their first step is to complete a pre-screen interview with the Resettlement Support Center (RSC). The pre-screen is meant to include an overview of the USRAP process, however we learned the information participants received was often insufficient or wasn’t absorbed by refugees at that stage. One participant described his experience of USRAP overseas as “like walking blindfolded…we were uninformed .” As participants waited for months and even years for their case to be processed, not fully understanding the USRAP process and what was expected of them caused fear about the fate of their application and stopped them from being able to mentally prepare for what might happen next.
In refugee camps rumors tended to fill in these information gaps. For example, during the pre-screen interview (and in subsequent ones) refugees are asked to provide the name and address of a U.S. tie—a friend or family member in the U.S.—so that they might have the opportunity to be resettled near that person. However, the context for this question appears to have been absent or not understood. Participants told us they feared that disclosing a U.S. tie would disadvantage their application.
“I didn’t know why they were asking. We all make mistakes..Until I got here (U.S.). I didn’t know the importance of that question (U.S. tie). At that moment, everyone says no because we think that then that person will be responsible for us and the government will no longer be responsible for us. We think we will get priority if we don’t have anyone.” — P11
Updates on case status were difficult to access and uninformative, leading to further frustration
One participant told us she believed that any day someone might come to her house in the camp to bring her family the news that their application had been accepted. She feared that if she went into town, she might miss this visit, and forgo the opportunity to be resettled.
“The communication flow is not there. If you have a question you can’t get an answer…The person who is in the process is not involved at all” — P2
Those actively seeking information on the progress of their case found it difficult to come by and unhelpful. Conditions overseas varied greatly. In some camps technology (phones, computers) was not available. In one camp all communications with the RSC went through the camp’s refugee leadership. Not only was this disempowering but, the participant could never really be sure if their inquiry or the response to it was relayed. Those participants who were able to seek case status information by phone or by email, were frustrated that the answer they received was merely that their case was “in process’. The lack of detail and generic nature of this response failed to give them confidence that their case was actually progressing and did not give them any sense of how much longer they would need to wait.
Varying amounts of information on travel caused participants additional stress
“In the refugee camp it felt like we were either there forever or we were leaving immediately.” — P10
Once a determination is reached on a refugee’s case the process can suddenly speed up. Participants reported departing for the U.S. one week to three months after receiving their case decision. In between, they went to medical exams and Cultural Orientation (CO) where children were taught American gestures and adult participants were told about the travel process and instructed on household safety, appliances, light switches, and the name of the President… They noted that while it was very basic, the information provided was helpful because they “didn’t have those things in the camp” and some of them had never been on a plane before.
“They give you vaccines before you travel. There is also a tablet they give people and some people don’t want to take it because they think the medicine will make them forget their past. But when you take it you know you’re traveling soon.” — P11
Participants explained that IOM did not give them much time between alerting them of their flight and the flight itself. “The only moment you may think your flight is soon is when you get called to your medical check. It doesn’t mean your flight is booked, but you know it’s close when you get to cultural orientation,” recalled one participant. Often people only had a week’s notice, though one participant knew his travel date over a month in advance. During this window of time participants had to sell their belongings, say goodbye to loved ones, and prepare their bags and minds for a new phase of life in the U.S. Those being resettled near friends or family members knew where they would be moving, while those with no U.S. tie most often only learned their final destination when they landed. One participant described, “We didn’t know what city we were going to, just that we were going to the U.S.”
Participants with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) told us they felt particularly unprepared for their journey. They weren’t offered Cultural Orientation (CO) nor were they provided any instructions about travel or resettlement, which caused them a great deal of worry. For example, they weren’t informed that an IOM representative would meet them at connecting flights, that they would be received by an RA in the U.S., or in one case, that they would get any kind of resettlement assistance. One participant speculated that because she spoke English, IOM assumed she would “know everything”. But, this was far from the case.
Resettling in the U.S.
Participants were not mentally prepared for life in the U.S.; their first impressions often didn’t correlate with their expectations
“We thought that life will be a luxury because that is what you see in movies. We thought we would get very big houses, cars would be waiting for us. And the other thing that we thought is that we would get money. During the process, they tried to tell us how the U.S. is and how the resettlement process is. They showed us the housing – the good neighborhood, the bad neighborhood, everything. But because of what we saw in the movies we were ignorant to what we were told.” — P2
Some participants expressed that they had difficulty imagining what their new life would look like. Others told us that what they knew of America was what they’d seen in Hollywood films, they just expected the people to be ‘more realistic’. Either because it exceeded or fell short of what they’d envisioned, most people were surprised by what they found when they arrived.
A participant who came to the U.S. as a child told us, “I was blown away. I was in an area with other Thai people overseas. Everyone here was black or white and I wasn’t expecting that.” Another person described seeing snow for the first time on the drive from the airport and wondering, “was it corn flour? sugar? salt?” She felt too embarrassed to ask, but was amazed by its beauty. A third person said that when the caseworker stopped the car in front of his family’s new home, he saw a big house and assumed it was a hotel. He said he’d never seen houses so big and had always assumed they would be living together with other families. “It was something to say – this is my property. In the camp, there is nothing to claim ‘this is mine’ other than your clothes. It was beyond our expectations.”
Others described being initially disappointed that they were placed in a third floor apartment instead of a house, in a mobile home, or in “the poorest neighborhood”. One mother said she’d expected that her adult children would be allowed to attend college, and that she and her husband might find jobs in line with their education and experience. A few participants told us they were shocked by the cold climate of their new homes.
“I had a clear picture of what was there and knew I wasn’t going to get much. I had friends tell me more about it in the US.” — P11
Participants with U.S. contacts were more often aware of the life that awaited them. They told us speaking with friends, family, or former colleagues who’d come to the U.S. as refugees, or were familiar with the resettlement process helped prepare them mentally for the situation they were about to step into. Sometimes relatives helped find housing and in one case had even sent a participant a video walk-through of their new apartment.
The resettlement program’s push towards early self-sufficiency leaves little room for individual needs
“After 7 months, the RA completed a checklist from the government to see if everything was done and we had to sign to give the report back. We signed the form, we did the home visit and then we parted ways. They said if we wanted to follow up we had to make an appointment. We didn’t know what appointments were.” — P2
The services the local RAs provided when participants first arrived were helpful, but not enough to give them a firm footing. Their touchpoints with caseworkers were limited, and the expectation was that they would quickly become self-sufficient in all respects. This required a dramatic shift in mindset for participants who’d spent their entire adult lives in refugee camps where they had little autonomy and were dependent on others for almost everything. One participant recounted that in the camp she didn’t even get to choose the food she ate and had been given the same meal every day for 17 years. Even while they wanted to be independent, so much was not evident. They were not familiar with or prepared for even day-to-day tasks like negotiating public transportation or making appointments. Being new to the country and in some cases not speaking the language, it was difficult to know whom to ask for guidance.
Other participants had very different needs. One told us she had been in a safehouse for nearly a year and had not been able to contact her family to tell them what was happening. She needed internet access so she could connect with them, but this was not considered a ‘basic need’ by the resettlement program. Another participant said she wished that someone had taken the time to explain to her how the school system worked so she could have guided her children better.
An employment-first approach gave participants no choice in their first job in the U.S.
“There is a lot of resistance outside of the town, but what made it okay was that people gave refugees what no one else wanted.”
— ESOL teacher
A defining characteristic of U.S. domestic resettlement is its emphasis on early employment. Participants were told by resettlement agency staff that they had to find a job as soon as 45 days after their arrival because very shortly thereafter they would have to start paying their own rent. While many participants were eager to work, some lived in areas that offered few employment opportunities. In those cases, the prospect and consequences of not being able to make rent or take care of their loved ones caused great anxiety.
Refugees are often required to take the first job they’re offered, a condition of the ORR Matching Grant that extends the lack of agency participants felt over their lives during the USRAP process overseas. Several participants reported that they were paid low wages to work in difficult or dangerous conditions – at a plant that made pesticides, operating a forklift in the snow, cleaning airplanes overnight, or performing repetitive tasks while standing for long shifts. Some worked multiple part-time jobs and received no health insurance.
First jobs often didn’t leverage participants’ education, skills, or interests
“She (grandmother) had so many jobs, washing dishes, cleaning up at the mall, etc. In Cuba she owned a tobacco company and a seamstress company.” —P4
Rarely did it seem that education, work experience, or skills were taken into account when participants were first placed. Deskilled participants said their initial placements made them feel demoralized and intellectually underutilized. While RA staff did not necessarily view a refugee’s first job as a ‘forever job’, it took participants who spoke English approximately two years before they were able to switch to other jobs. It’s notable that nearly half of our participants either volunteered at or were immediately or eventually employed by resettlement agencies, one field where they found their experience to be valued.
After completing R&P, participants negotiated many challenges on their own
PRM’s Reception and Placement program (R&P) mandates that refugees complete three days of state-side cultural orientation within 90 days of arrival. However, at this stage participants did not feel sufficiently prepared to navigate life from there on out on their own. When they spoke about the challenges they negotiated in the months that followed, we heard repeatedly about obstacles in the areas of language, finances, acculturation, education, transportation, community, and health.
“My parents, they spoke English and it wasn’t perfect and so people don’t always understand what they are trying to say, which stresses them out.” — P10
Participants had difficulty communicating in English. Learning a new language remained one of the biggest obstacles for adults who did not speak English when they arrived. Once they started working there was no longer time for ESOL classes. The parents of participants who arrived as children often struggled to speak and understand English after years in the U.S. This limited their employment options and increased their feeling of isolation. Translation services were not always available. When they were, participants sometimes had to wait on hold for hours to access the language line. Children became de facto translators for their parents and grandparents, putting them in the awkward position of having to translate at their sibling’s parent-teacher conferences and decode government forms at an early age.
“I did not see money for my first 9-10 months in the U.S. We used to pick up pennies in the street. We recharged our phone with that money. We would pick up bottles.” — P12
Participants struggled to cover their expenses on very limited budgets. While the wages from participants’ first jobs were low, sometimes they were just enough to get them cut off from benefits like food stamps (SNAP). At the same time, rent was due, they had to repay their travel loan, their medicaid coverage was ending, and bills suddenly started arriving. For some, the mere concept of a bill and of a budget were new, yet how they managed to juggle these expenses would shape their credit history.
“We had a lot of questions and didn’t have people to answer. That’s why we had a lot of issues and problems.” — P2
Navigating new norms and cultural practices without anyone to explain them was really difficult. Participants negotiated these hurdles daily. “In Africa if you have an appointment at 10, from 10-10:59 is 10 o’clock. But in the US, when it’s 10, it’s 10!” described one participant.
Seemingly little things made a big difference. Health insurance didn’t make sense. “Why would you need to pay $600 each month if you aren’t sick?” a participant tried to ask. Eventually she stopped paying. Then a sudden illness put her in the hospital for 4 days. Five years later, she’s still paying that bill.
Other participants told us they struggled to understand customs, popular culture, and their rights. When they learned them, they were sometimes pleasantly surprised. In speaking about her parents one participant described: “Their faith was a big part of finding their identity in America, we didn’t think that people could worship so freely and could speak their own language at church.”
“We wanted to study but we wanted our kids to go to school so we worked.” — P2
Participants faced unexpected barriers when they tried to re-certify or continue their education, while those who came as children learned to advocate for themselves. Participants who’d spent time in refugee camps didn’t always have access to education there. Some told us they’d hoped they and/or their children would be able to resume their studies when they came to the U.S. However, they soon learned that refugees over 18 are expected to work.Young adults were placed in vocational training programs and college classes were not an option.
Those who had degrees from abroad, found they were not always recognized, which was frustrating. One participant recounted that his lack of English made it difficult for him to get recertified. “They didn’t take my Bachelors from Nepal. They told me I had to take the placement test. But, the test was all in English, so I didn’t do well.”
Parents were not familiar with the school system and hadn’t always had the opportunity to complete their own education. They struggled to help their children. “I was a big advocate for myself. When I found out about programs, I’d take advantage of every opportunity. They’d do a college field trip, a workshop on financial aid, I’d be there,” described a participant who arrived when she was seven. However, she observed that her refugee classmates who struggled in school could easily get left behind, or just get pushed through the school system. School counselors were often overworked, and if they did take the time to reach out to the parents there weren’t always interpreters available to translate for them.
“That’s when I started volunteering for the refugee center. I wanted people to know me and I was helping however I could. I wanted my presence to be seen so I could meet people, network with people and offer to help.” — P2
Belonging to a community, having new relationships, and making American friends plays a key role in integration, described one participant. Without a social network, participants found that searching for a job was more difficult. There was no one with whom to share religious and cultural practices or whom participants could call to watch their kids when they were in a bind. Not knowing any Americans, they struggled to find someone to ask for advice and for help understanding cultural practices.
“After 5th grade I met people who were like me and were refugees. Not all of the students were Burmese, but we were in the same situation, so that was a helpful community in the ESL class,” relayed one participant. Others went out of their way to try to help those around them connect. A participant told us that he used to offer a citizenship class at the local community center. He said he would go to the homes of older refugees to pick them up and take them there. He did teach the class, but recognized that it’s main intention was for the older generation to get together and talk.
“We did our best to learn driving, we started saving money and then we eventually had enough money to share a car.” — P2
Not having access to transportation, limited participants’ job prospects and made them dependent on others. One participant recounted getting a ride from a friend to a medical exam, but then having no way to get home. Luckily a case worker from the local RA showed up with another client and helped her get a bus pass. She explained that it was her first time using public transportation. “Where you see the bus, that you have to buy the pass,” these things were new to her.
For those living in small towns or rural areas public transit was not an option. They told us they would walk or bike long distances everyday to work and to ethnic grocery stores where the food was familiar. Realizing this strategy would be untenable in winter, they worked multiple jobs to save for a car. Several didn’t know how to drive, but recognized being able to would unlock better employment options. “My uncle was also working in the human services field…He told me that if I got a driver’s license he would help me get a job. So that was my goal to get the license. I had never driven before. But, I couldn’t wait to get out of the airport.”
“I think this isn’t talked about a lot… My parents were dealing with a lot of issues. I wish that there was more support for mental health. It’s hard when you don’t have the terms. Deep issues, these need to be addressed, for them.” — P8
Participants struggled to access affordable, culturally sensitive medical and mental healthcare.
Medicaid only lasts for 8 months and the cost of health insurance was a significant burden, so several people told us they went without it. Others were not used to receiving preventive care and only went to the doctor when they were very sick. The population of the refugee camp where he’d spent the previous 15 years, recounted one participant, was similar in size to the U.S. city of ~100,000 where he’d been relocated. The main difference being that in the camp, “we only had one hospital, four clinics and one or two doctors”.
Often refugees arrive with medical needs that have gone untended for years. They may have witnessed or experienced extreme violence and trauma and suffer from PTSD and other aftereffects. Participants told us there was a critical need for mental health care in their communities, but reaching people was a challenge. Older generations were not accustomed to speaking with younger people about their feelings, and when mental healthcare was available, it wasn’t always offered in participants native languages.
“I wish that when people came that everyone was nicer. They treated Americans differently than me, people automatically judged me.” — P10
Discrimination, fatigue, deskilling, low incomes, fear, and the weight of being of being responsible for others in an unfamiliar setting were added stressors as participants sought to rebuild their lives. Those who arrived as children described being called racial slurs in the classroom; adults were passed over for jobs and saw less senior Americans promoted before them. One participant was able to enroll in college, but had to work the overnight shift in order to continue to pay her bills. She learned to record the professor’s lectures because she was so tired she often fell asleep in class. Participants who arrived with advanced degrees found themselves in jobs that didn’t utilize their skills. Losing confidence that they would ever be able to return to their profession, they described falling into depression. Money was tight, and participants were often providing for families of six or nine people and also sending money to relatives they left behind. They struggled to pay their bills and meet their daily expenses. The neighborhoods where local RAs placed participants were the most affordable, but also often those with the highest incidents of crime and gang activity. One participant who later became a caseworker recounted that she often didn’t feel safe visiting her clients. A mother who didn’t speak English worried about her children getting lost and made them memorize their phone number and address. Meanwhile children struggled to support and translate for their parents and to make sense of medical forms at age ten.
Having others to rely on, feeling valued, feeling trusted were measures of success
“In the U.S. I learned Spanish…Most of the people at the factory where we were working spoke Spanish… They told us how we could improve ourselves. For the two years I worked in that factory, I learned a lot and made a lot of friends. I still call them today. And, when I have a question about something, I get the answer and that’s so good.” — P2
One of the most difficult things about living in a new country participants told us, is not knowing people you can depend on. When they did find this kind of support it made their newly adopted country feel much more viable. When his wife went into labor early, one participant recounted he had to figure out what to do with his other two children. He ended up calling a woman from the county resettlement office, and she came and stayed with his children for three nights while he was in the hospital with his wife and newborn. “That small help when we needed it really turned the corner.”
Another participant described that she connected with people in her new hometown through their shared love of music. She didn’t speak English when she arrived, but a grade school teacher recognized that she had perfect pitch and helped her secure a singing scholarship. Being recognized for her talents made her feel like she had something valuable to contribute.
“It was hard for me to integrate into professional work here despite my background… Even though I got food and shelter on my arrival, I felt intellectually underutilized,” described another participant. Even though she spoke English, she said it took seven years for others to trust her as manager.
She gave up her health insurance to become the director of a local resettlement office, so she could help advocate for the refugee community.
Participants moved out of state to find better jobs
“My grandmother thought that if I stayed in Miami I wouldn’t learn English. If we went to Tampa it would push us to figure it out.” — P4
Four participants moved from the state where they were resettled during their first five years in the U.S. They relocated after a month, after a year, and after five years to places they often learned about through friends, relatives, or Facebook groups. Most cited better and more plentiful job options as the driving factor. One participant said her family moved in order to distance themselves from the diaspora in the city where they’d been resettled, fearing that if they stayed they’d be less likely to learn English.
The opportunity to be close to relatives and co-ethnic and religious communities were secondary motivations for these moves, as was a warmer climate. In one case, a participant had asked to be resettled near a U.S. tie in Virginia, but was told at the last minute that the resettlement office there had run out of budget. He was resettled in Tampa instead, where he found few opportunities for employment. He’s since relocated to Atlanta and still plans to move to Virginia as soon as he is able.
Refugee Journey Maps
The U.S. Domestic Resettlement Program
This section is informed by conversation with staff from the nine national resettlement agencies at both the national and local level, with state refugee coordinators from six states, former RSC staff, former U.S. government (USG) officials, advocates, and academics. We did not speak to the parties inside the USG who manage the cooperative agreement with RAs nor did we speak to current Office of Refugee Resettlement administrators. More research is needed in these areas.
A public-private partnership
U.S. Domestic Resettlement is executed through a public-private partnership between the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and nine national Resettlement Agencies (RAs). The RA’s are largely faith-based nonprofits with local resettlement offices throughout the U.S. who along with PRM, share the costs and carry out the work of resettling newly arrived refugees.
RA’s compete to receive a percentage of each year’s refugee admissions by responding to a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) issued by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). Each RAs is then awarded a contract called a cooperative agreement that guarantees them a set percentage of refugee arrivals during the coming fiscal year. In turn, RA’s commit to providing those refugees with Reception and Placement (R&P) services through their local resettlement offices around the country. Depending on the RA, local RA offices may be either field offices who are part of the RA’s 501c3 or affiliates—independent nonprofits subcontracted by the RA’s to deliver resettlement programs.
|Resettlement Agency||Percentage of Total FY20 Clients Approved to Serve|
|International Rescue Committee (IRC)||19.74%|
|United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)||17.05%|
|US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)||14.45%|
|Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS)||13.05%|
|Church World Service (CWS)||11.24%|
|World Relief (WR)||8.56%|
|Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)||6.06%|
|Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM)||5.31%|
|Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)||4.56%|
Allocations: Matching refugees with a resettlement agency
At a weekly allocations meeting of the nine resettlement agencies, refugee cases are selected by each RA. The number of cases they’re able to select is determined by the Refugee Processing Center (RPC) and is based on the annual percentage of arrivals PRM has awarded the RA. In advance of the meeting, a report is sent out to the nine RAs listing by nationality the individuals and cases that have been approved by DHS. This includes cases identified as medical cases, U.S. ties, and SIVs. During the meeting each RA selects the cases they will “assure”’ or sponsor, and within 24 hours the RPC provides them with basic data on case composition, principal applicants, number of adults and children, ages, ethnicity, and religion, as well as a basic overview of professional details and medical history. By pairing this case information with a current view of their local resettlement offices’ language, medical services, and state benefit capacity, RAs identify where they will ultimately place a case.
PRM’s Reception and Placement program
“The personality of an R&P resettlement team is a crisis team versus a long term resettlement team. They are problem solvers but they aren’t social workers. It’s disaster relief and if it were documented that way it would be easier.” — local RA staff
Reception and Placement (R&P) is the PRM program that supports refugees during their first 30-90 days in the U.S. and is meant to cover their immediate basic needs.
R&P services include:
- arranging for housing & providing necessary items
- making sure refugees are picked up at the airport
- providing a hot meal on arrival day
- assistance applying for a Social Security card
- public assistance enrollment (DSS: SNAP, cash assistance, Medicaid)
- school enrollment for children
- health screening appointment
- ESOL class enrollment
- cultural orientation classes (3)
- selective services enrollment (males 18-25)
A case manager will typically check-in with the refugee three times during their first month and if needed, 60 or 90 days after they arrive.
Local resettlement offices receive an R&P grant of $2275 (as of FY21) for each refugee served, $1050 covers the local RA’s administrative expenses and $1225 supplies direct assistance to the refugee. Local RAs are allowed to reserve $200 from the refugee’s portion and place it into a discretionary fund for the most vulnerable cases. Because R&P is granted per individual, larger families living in a single home are able to make the money go a longer way than individual refugees resettling by themselves. An underlying assumption of the public-private partnership is that the local RA will match the direct assistance portion of R&P funding either with dollars or in-kind donations, however this isn’t required on a per-capita basis.
“No, it’s not enough. If that (R&P) was the only thing refugees had to rely on I’m not sure how they would do it. If they were single, I’m not sure how you would do it. That money goes very quickly, within a month or shorter that money is spent.” — local RA staff
Limited R&P allocation for the refugee means funding is often expended after 30 days
“Every year, the money we have goes less and less far, which makes the 90-day timeline like a 30-day window in practice”. RA staff explained to us that the bulk of the $1225 is often quickly expended on the refugee’s first month’s housing costs (deposit + rent) . The portion of R&P that provides direct assistance to the refugee is a fixed dollar amount and is not adjusted by location. This makes finding affordable housing particularly challenging in some metropolitan areas, where jobs may be plentiful, but the cost of living can make it very difficult for refugees to achieve economic stability.
We found there was a large variation in the duration and level of support offered by local RAs. Some offices told us they stretch the R&P funds by looking to their local community for in-kind and financial support. Others have robust fundraising operations and are able to tell their refugee clients up-front that their rent will be covered for the first four or even six months (if needed), relieving much anxiety. Resettlement offices with less sizable budgets or outreach departments aren’t able to extend the same length or level of financial support, which can put extra pressure on their clients to find work quickly.
Heavy focus on monitoring incentivizes RAs to focus on compliance
“R&P ends up feeling like a 90 day assembly line.”
— state refugee coordinator
“One thing we talk a lot about is that it’s framed as a legal protection program, but then when you get here it’s an economic self sufficiency program. But if you want to be self sufficient, you have to acknowledge the self and not just have a blanket program. The more individualizing, the more successful people will be.”
— RA staff
Local RA staff described that they have to complete long checklists verifying the number of kitchen utensils in the refugees’ home. They also have to provide detailed case notes on the R&P services their clients receive, even though they are required to deliver the same services to all refugees. Case managers carry heavy caseloads of seventy-five clients per case manager and often feel overworked. PRM monitoring, we were told, is very strict, and local resettlement office staff explained their organization can be judged negatively if there is no lamp in the refugee’s room (an item missing from the checklist). PRM also tracks how many refugees served by the RA have secured employment by the end of their R&P period, which they said feels incongruous given that R&P is not an employment program. What is lacking in R&P, RA staff acknowledged, is the flexibility to take into account a client’s specific needs during that period.
Community sponsorship and co-sponsorship
Resettlement agencies depend on community members to assist with their operations
“I still am in touch with the church that sponsored us, they have become part of my family.” — P1
The structure of the public-private partnership that is the basis for the U.S. resettlement program has long necessitated that RAs seek additional support from local communities through financial or in-kind contributions. Volunteers and community groups often play an integral role in the delivery of R&P services. This level of local involvement is seen by some advocates as a strength of the program as it has the potential to connect refugees with their new neighbors and to help them integrate into their local communities. Two participants recounted meeting community members through their resettlement office —an ESOL teacher, and a group of women from a local diocese— who became long-time family friends.
Several levels of community engagement exist, ranging from volunteer opportunities where individuals complete discrete tasks like collecting household goods to furnish a refugees’ homes, to co-sponsorship whereby a group of people raise money and take responsibility for the majority of tasks involved in resettling a specific refugee or refugee family. Most resettlement agencies are affiliated with religious organizations so it’s not surprising that community support often comes from groups formed by nearby churches and synagogues. Volunteers however, may simply be individuals in the community who want to help including: students, retirees, and recently resettled refugees. We found that definitions of sponsorship vary greatly in the field and from country to country; below are the different levels of community engagement that exist in the U.S. today as defined by RAs:
Volunteer – An individual agrees to provide certain volunteer services to arriving or previously arrived refugees.
Community Sponsorship – A group commits to provide financial and/or in-kind contributions and certain volunteer services to arriving or previously arrived refugees.
Co-Sponsorship – A form of community sponsorship, defined in R&P cooperative agreement. An established community group accepts in a written agreement with a RA the responsibility to provide, or ensure the provision of (some) reception and placement services to certain refugees sponsored by the Resettlement Agency.
Full Co-Sponsorship – A form of co-sponsorship, as defined above, in which the established community group accepts in a written agreement with a nRA the responsibility to provide, or ensure the provision of, all or nearly all reception and placement services to certain refugees sponsored by the Resettlement Agency.
Co-sponsors take on the full responsibilities of resettling a refugee
At least fourteen local RAs have developed their own co-sponsorship programs and the exact division of labor between the group and the RA varies in each. We interviewed a former sponsor and co-sponsorship program manager at a local resettlement office in Connecticut, which has implemented a full co-sponsorship program. They described a sponsorship group composed of up to 10 people with two leaders and responsibilities divided up by focus area: medical, education, transportation etc. among the core team. The sponsors raised approximately $4000-$10,000 to cover a six-month period, met several times a week for planning sessions, and underwent a seven-hour sponsorship training in advance of their refugee family’s arrival. If they were not already part of an organization like a church or a 501c3, sponsors had to form a legal entity in order to co-sign on the refugees’ lease. They also signed a written agreement with the RA that outlined that they were responsible for the refugee family’s resettlement.
In this case, the local RA retained the R&P administrative fee and the co-sponsor program manager was in charge of supporting and monitoring the sponsor group. He described holding five formal meetings with the sponsors (and the refugee family) over a period of six months: a pre-arrival meeting, multiple meetings during R&P, a 45-day meeting and a 90-day meeting when oversight surveys were conducted. A final visit was made at the end of six months. In this instance, the only R&P duty retained by the co-sponsor program manager was the refugees’ employment assessment, an area where he had distinct expertise. To spite these touchpoints, the sponsor groups operated largely independently and worked to problem-solve any issues on their own. While the sponsor’s level of involvement was designed to taper after four months, their friendship with the refugee family often continued beyond the sponsorship period, which appears to be one of the greatest benefits of sponsorship for the refugee.
Wrap-around services through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)
“You can’t talk about the refugee admissions without the wrap around provisions.” — RA staff
“There’s no refugee that doesn’t need additional support after 90 days.” — RA staff
One of the tasks of the R&P case manager is to register their refugee clients for Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) programs intended to support longer-term resettlement needs. Not all ORR programs are available to all refugees as each ORR program has different qualifying criteria. Refugees must first be deemed employable, not immediately employable, or as having high medical needs.
ORR is a division of the Department Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers grants to the states for programs focused on supporting refugees during their first eight months in the U.S. and for up to five years after their arrival. The state then contracts with the local RAs to deliver specific ORR programs, a process overseen by the state refugee coordinator (SRC). Grants from ORR to the states run for two, three, or four years and are awarded based on the previous year’s arrival numbers. Programs funded include cash assistance, as well as support for medical assistance, case management services, English language classes, financial literacy training, youth mentoring, job readiness and employment services, among others.
In our interviews with SRCs and RAs the ORR programs most frequently mentioned were: Matching Grant, Refugee Support Services, Preferred Communities), and Refugee Cash Assistance.
The Matching Grant (MG) is reserved for refugees who are deemed employable by the local RA, and is intended to help them overcome any barriers to finding employment quickly. MG is only available to newly arrived refugees who must sign up within 31 days of arrival. Seeing as it provides cash, local RA staff told us it was often used to pay qualifying refugee’s rent after their R&P funds ran out. The grant provides up to $2600 of ORR funds, which the local RA must match with cash or goods and services, at a rate of 2:1. Therefore local RAs need to have fundraising capacity to offer such a program.
Refugees who are not readily employable, for example a single mother with an infant, may qualify for Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) the amount of which varies dramatically from state to state. One SRC lamented that in their state RCA is only $428/month ‘that’s not enough to cover rent or even buy food’, as it turns out there are other states where MG is as low as $155/month. In these states refugees might instead be referred to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a form of cash assistance available not only to refugees, but to anyone in the state who qualifies.
If a refugee is not immediately employable because they require extra support for physical disabilities, are experiencing psychological conditions due to trauma from war or violence, or are older adults on their own without families, they will likely be referred to Preferred Communities (PC). Active in 34 states, PC is a program that provides long-term case management, medical, mental health, and social adjustment services for the most vulnerable refugees. One RA staff member explained: “At the end of the service year the goal is for them to be self-sufficient and doing things on their own…speaking english, contacting their own doctors, making their own appointments, etc. until they reach economic self-sufficiency.”
Refugee Support Services (RSS) is another program geared towards helping refugees find and maintain employment within a year of being enrolled. The eligibility requirements are less strict than MG and extend to refugees currently receiving cash assistance as well as to those who have been in the U.S. for up to five years. RSS services include: employment assessment, job training, vocational training, recertification, job placement, social adjustment, English language classes, day care for children, and citizenship and naturalization. While specific services vary from state to state, this is one ORR program that seemed to allow flexibility for more tailored and creative implementations.
Given the variable availability of ORR programs, the number of programs that exist, and the difference in program offerings from state to state, further research is needed to fully interpret this ecosystem.
Limited ORR funding and focus on new arrivals means services may not be available when refugees who need them later on
While R&P provides for the refugee’s first 30-90 days, ORR programs are meant to serve refugees up to five years after arrival. However, federal funding is limited and newly arrived refugees tend to be prioritized for services. This begets a lack of options for refugees who seek services after being in the states for three or four years, e.g a mother with young children who is just now ready to enter the workforce.
Managing refugee cases and needs across two federal programs
“We do a service plan with a client for R&P for 30 days. And then turn around and do it again 5 different times. I wish that the criteria for the programs weren’t so varied.” — RA staff
A paper-based process and misaligned program goals impede RA’s ability to track refugees’ resettlement progress across government agencies (DOS & HHS)
Having two different government agencies, PRM and ORR, in charge of domestic resettlement poses challenges for both the refugee and local RAs and means there is no way to track a refugee’s progress from arrival through their first five years of resettlement. Refugees working with one caseworker during R&P may have to go through a second ORR intake with a different individual a few months later. Case notes from one program are not systematically shared with the next, and refugees have to learn to trust a new case manager who may be uninformed about their background and the challenges they’ve faced since their arrival.
Local RA’s have to complete a huge amount of paperwork, including detailed checklists, to meet each program’s differing and stringent requirements, which leave little latitude for individual needs. Oversight from both PRM and ORR is strict but uncoordinated, with local RA’s recounting instances where monitors from both programs showed up on the same day. Most often a refugee’s case file will be composed of paper-based reporting for the PRM and ORR programs in which they are enrolled. However, one local RA told us that their office created a Sharepoint system that enables them to track their clients throughout their resettlement and across government programs. While many won’t have the resources to build their own custom solutions, it’s likely other local offices have also devised their own processes for tracking refugees internally; but these fixes are one-offs and don’t allow data from one location to be compared with that of another.
Domestic Resettlement Today, Meeting the Needs of Increased Admissions
The current state of the resettlement infrastructure
Reduced and delayed arrivals hamstring local resettlement operations
Since early 2020 refugee arrival rates have been very low and have not adhered to even the historically low PD numbers. Some local resettlement offices have seen no arrivals for months. Allocations meetings now happen every other week, with only one national agency receiving as many as ten refugees in July 2020. While in the past, assured cases usually were ready to travel within three months, lately there have been significant travel delays with ripple effects as pre-departure checks then expire and must be repeated. If a case is delayed more than a year the assurance expires and has to be reverified by the RA.
Lack of visibility into the pipeline makes it more difficult for RAs to plan for arrivals
“The allocations process has been so blown up. We’re having two meetings a month and now we’re lucky if we get 1 – 2 cases.”
— RA staff
RA staff told us that before allocations, they “used to be able to see (in WRAPS) how many people were on hold and any reason that they were, which would allow us to call out backlogs.” This information made it easier to estimate when refugees might be ready to travel to the U.S. and helped local RAs plan for arrivals. PRM has stopped offering access to hold information, because they claim it is inaccurate.
Efforts to test smarter refugee placements are hamstrung
Algorithmic-informed matching appears a promising approach for quickly placing high levels of refugee admissions, however current pilots of programs have been stalled by low arrivals. Efforts to use algorithms to match refugee cases to resettlement locations have been undertaken by the Immigration Policy Lab (IPL) at Stanford and HIAS, a resettlement agency that has developed its own system called Annie. These systems utilize information on refugee nationality, age, gender, and language to match new arrivals to resettlement locations where based on historical data, refugees with their profile are likely to achieve rapid employment. Early results are encouraging, however, more data points are needed. Employment rates after 90 days (the data set provided by PRM that informs the IPL pilot) are low across all RAs and somewhat controversial in their value and the algorithm currently doesn’t take into account other countervailing case needs such as schools or the availability of affordable childcare.
Reduced admissions and even lower arrivals have led to staff layoffs and local office closures
FY PD and Actual Annual Admissions
|Fiscal Year||Presidential Determination||Actual Admissions|
“We have gone from 31 locations down to 12…Very talented and dedicated staff have left.” — RA staff
A dramatic reduction in refugee arrivals over the past four years has had a dismantling effect on the domestic resettlement infrastructure. Over one hundred, or nearly a third of local resettlement offices around the country have either closed or have paused R&P services; 220 remain. Existing offices have laid off staff, lost language expertise, and institutional knowledge. With few new arrivals, crucial relationships with employers and landlords have “gone fallow”. While many federal grants pay the grantee ahead of time, by the rules set out in RA’s cooperative agreement with PRM, local resettlement offices are paid ‘upon arrival’. Put simply, in a month with no arrivals they don’t get paid, making it extremely difficult for those nonprofits to make payroll and maintain programming.
PRM’s new rules and practices further limited local RA operations
“Because of the need for each office to resettle 50/100 refugees, we had to shut down in North Dakota where we’re the only office in the first place.” — RA staff
If the lowered PD has been the primary destabilizing factor for resettlement operations, new rules and practices put in place during the last four years have exacerbated the problem. Local non-profits now can only be affiliated with one, rather than multiple national RAs, causing some RAs to see a reduction in their market share of arrivals. PRM also mandated that local offices resettle a minimum of 100 refugees (reduced to 50 during the pandemic) annually, compelling offices in smaller welcoming communities, like college towns to close. Predicting when cases will arrive is crucial for planning for refugee housing, community readiness, and RA capacity. In recent years planning has been increasingly difficult; RAs’ visibility into WRAPS has been reduced so they can no longer estimate how long it will be before a refugee will travel, and the RPC’s arrival forecasts offer a lot less information than they once did.
The remaining local resettlement offices have used creative strategies to stay afloat and adapt to turbulent times. They’ve trimmed their budgets, adapted programming to serve other immigrant communities, hired Americorps VISTA members to augment their staff, and sought out private funding. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit local offices pivoted to remote case management on WhatsApp and Zoom. They applied for grants to ensure that every newly arrived refugee family had a cell phone and/or laptop for cultural orientation, language classes, virtual medical visits, and online school. When clients were delayed in accessing social security and food stamps, local RAs reached out to churches and their broader community for help in providing their clients with food and PPE.
Scaling to meet the needs of FY21 PD of 125K
“The biggest challenge is the way refugee resettlement is funded. Because it’s per capita you are building capacity after the fact.”
— local RA staff
RAs are eager for more refugees to be admitted to the U.S. and have the flexibility to start receiving them soon
The RA staff we interviewed were unanimous in their support for an increase in refugee admissions and were confident they could build back. “If you’re looking for an industry that could take on these tasks, resettlement agencies can do it because we’re used to such dramatic swings.” Their commitment to serving this population outweighs the challenges they know they will face in scaling.
Advanced coordination between PRM and RAs will be essential to support an increase in the rate of arrivals
“I do understand how many people are in a dire situation and want to be a part of building what we need to do. I resettled in a recession and I had people come here to be homeless and I don’t want to do that again. What they get on the other side needs to be better.” — local RA staff
RAs told us that in order to maintain a consistent quality of services, it will be important that they are informed when USCIS circuit rides resume and the pipeline is open again. To properly plan for arrivals they will require accurate predictions of when cases will be ready for travel from PRM. Local resettlement offices said they could handle a spike in arrivals with two weeks’ warning at first, but would need three to six months notice to hire and train new staff to accommodate a sustained flow of higher admissions. They were deeply concerned about being caught unprepared for a sudden increase in arrivals. Without this lead time, they told us, the level of the services would be negatively affected and refugees could fall through the cracks.
RAs will need additional support from PRM to build capacity in advance of arrivals
“The biggest challenge is the way refugee resettlement is funded. Because it’s per capita you are building capacity after the fact.”
— local RA staff
Rebuilding local office capacity is the first step, but alone, will not be enough to meet the needs of a PD of 125K. Local offices that have paused their R&P programs will have to be brought back online, and RAs will also need to open new offices in order to serve a larger volume of refugee arrivals. However, the cooperative agreement with PRM is currently structured so that local resettlement offices shoulder both the risk and the expense of expanding their operations. Given the recent history of low arrivals, PRM will also need to persuade local RAs that they will indeed deliver on higher admissions numbers. RA’s told us that to expand they will require additional funding for the one-time costs of hiring new staff, renting space, and purchasing equipment.
The strategic placement of new resettlement offices should forefront refugee and community needs
“One of the challenges that we talked about in scaling up the program are the race relations in our country. What will be done to prepare for that? …What support will be in place to help deal with those conversations and provide protections?” —RA staff
RAs have at once a competitive and collegial relationship and we observed that many staff members have worked for more than one agency during the course of their careers. The different RAs will need to work collaboratively to ensure that they recognize both the needs of refugees and of local communities when determining where to open and re-open new resettlement offices. They told us that when identifying these locations they will have to take into account several factors: the number of existing resettlement offices in the area, recent migration patterns and areas where U.S. ties are likely to be located, cost of living, availability of affordable housing, employment options, as well as the needs and resources of the resettlement community in terms of jobs, schools, healthcare, and other state benefits. PRM mandates that resettlement offices hold quarterly meetings with community stakeholders including law enforcement, health, education, and SRCs. These meetings are one setting where such needs might be discussed, but additional outreach into new communities will be necessary. Once new offices have been set up, to be fully operational, their staff will also have to forge relationships with local employers, landlords, school districts and churches etc., which will take additional time.
A gradual increase in admissions from multiple countries would allow local RAs to build back consciously over time
RAs indicated that a steady flow and gradual increase in admissions would be much easier to accommodate than admissions surges such as they experienced at the end of 2016 when arrivals doubled in the fourth quarter. When large numbers of refugees arrive in quick succession without planning, local resources can become oversaturated – for example doctors appointments can be difficult to secure, which then impacts RA’s ability to enroll children in school before the start of the academic year. Sudden increases in arrivals can also lead to a backlash from local communities, who see their local services suddenly overwhelmed.
Relatedly, RAs will be better equipped to handle refugees from disparate populations rather than a large number of admissions from a single country. Approximately 75% of cases have a U.S. tie, which means they are often bound for a few specific towns or cities where a diaspora exists. One example is Columbus, OH which has a Bhutanese-Nepali population of 40,000. When there is a sudden surge in arrivals headed to a specific location local resettlement offices and host community services can become overtaxed. Our research showed that when local RAs reached maximum capacity, refugee’s requests to be resettled near friends and family were no longer met.
Strengthening the domestic resettlement program
“When refugees come, they want to be self-sufficient. They are workers, they are doctors, they open businesses, they employ people. We pay taxes. Refugees and immigrants are the backbone of the economy of this country.” — P 1
The refugees who participated in our research are incredible, resilient people who started life over in a foreign country and navigated a resettlement system that often fell short of providing the support they needed to be self-sufficient and feel empowered. They overcame those and many more obstacles to become college students, community organizers, religious leaders, directors of nonprofits, case workers, advocates, educators, volunteers, taxpayers, and American citizens. However, today, the domestic resettlement infrastructure is far weaker than when they came through it.
Recalibrate up-front resettlement support to recognize refugee needs, build self-sufficiency, and invest in long-term gains
In our interviews with refugees and resettlement agency staff we heard many times that regardless of employability, all refugees need a minimum of four to six months of financial support when they arrive. Making these funds available without qualification in a single program that takes resettlement location COL into account, would enable refugees to participate in ESOL classes, access healthcare and mental health services, partake in vocational training and re-credentialing, and attend to other needs that would empower them to become truly self-sufficient sooner. This up-front investment would allow refugees to build capacities that would likely yield higher dividends as better jobs lead to higher wages and tax contributions over time.
Reorient domestic resettlement towards a strategic, holistic, data-informed approach to facilitating refugee integration
The mandate to meet the demands of a PD of 125k is an opportunity to rebuild a better and more durable domestic resettlement program. The key to strengthening the U.S. program we were told by one SRC, is in reorienting the conversation around resettlement from it’s focus on the first few months post-arrival (R&P), towards the recognition that integration is a long-term process. In order to implement this shift in ethos, PRM and ORR would first need to devise a shared framework for integration in consultation with refugees, RAs, and other stakeholders. With outside help from academic institutions with expertise in this area, they could define measurements of integration and create a system for collecting and tracking this data across government agencies (DOS and HHS). This shared system could be leveraged to replace the mounds of paperwork that RAs must complete for each government program and would allow for a more holistic view of the resettlement process for each refugee they serve. Re-orienting service provision goals around refugee outcomes, rather than program compliance, would also empower RAs to address refugee’s individual needs. State and federal administrators in turn, could use the new integration measures to evaluate program efficacy and to make data-driven decisions about program funding.
Offer flexible funding to serve individual needs and encourage innovation
During our research with state refugee coordinators we heard about inspiring, singular initiatives developed in pockets across the country to support integration. A school dedicated to refugee children in upstate NY enables kids in grades K-8 to spend two years adjusting to the U.S. education system and mastering English. An ESOL course in rural Massachusetts, teaches the rules of the road and is paired with discounted road training from local driving schools to help refugees obtain their driver’s license. In Virginia, ‘computer language’ or digital literacy classes have been incorporated into ESOL training so refugees can learn to send emails and edit their own resumes on laptops purchased with private donations. These examples reveal that with flexible funding, RAs can respond to the needs of their refugee clients with very innovative programming. While refugee communities in other parts of the country may be facing similar needs and challenges, today each local resettlement office develops their own programs in a siloed manner, and they have no means for sharing or scaling such successes. A single system focused on capturing refugee integration data could be leveraged both to help improve existing programs and to promote best practices across resettlement service providers.
Launch a campaign to educate Americans about refugee resettlement
Given the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has proliferated in recent years the resettlement program must recognize that additional work needs to be done to reorient communities towards a posture of welcoming rather than fearing immigrants. A national campaign to promote refugee resettlement could showcase the many contributions refugees have made to the U.S. and highlight famous Americans who came as refugees. It could also help educate the public about the thorough security vetting process refugees undergo. A push to help broaden access to co-sponsorship would allow more Americans to play an active role in the resettlement of a refugee or refugee family. After the Syrian crisis in 2015 a third of Canadians were either involved in refugee sponsorship or knew someone who was. Such an increase in exposure and participation in U.S. resettlement would provide the program with a basis of support that would make it far more difficult to dismantle.
Refugees have done for the U.S. as much or more than the country has done for them. Towns and cities like Erie, PA or Utica, NY were dying before refugees resettled there. It was refugees who enabled the schools in these communities to stay open and who kept the remaining local industries from going elsewhere. During the Covid-19 pandemic refugees have been among the frontline workers risking their health to keep meat packing plants, nursing homes, and factories running in their communities. Yet, in a time of economic downturn, and in the less affluent neighborhoods where they are often placed, Americans may perceive an influx of refugees as unwanted competition for limited resources. While in fact this is rarely the reality, it’s important that these tensions be addressed head-on. It would be wise for municipalities to enable resettlement offices to extend some of the services they provide refugees to the immediate community. Opening up access to childcare, digital literacy, vocational training, and tutoring would not only address a real need, but would also offer local residents an avenue to get to know their refugee neighbors.
Interviews were our primary data collection method. Our team conducted secondary research online and via academic resources to begin formulating interview questions and continued this research as questions arose throughout the approximately four months of research and writing. We also processed information collected via a service blueprint of USRAP.
The primary goals of this research were to:
- understand what it’s like to go through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Process (USRAP) from the perspective of a refugee;
- learn about the operations and the current state of the domestic resettlement program;
- discern the implications of increasing refugee admissions to 125,000 in FY21 from the perspective of resettlement agencies (RAs); and to
- collect information on areas where the U.S. resettlement falls short and on needed improvements
Importantly, refugee perspectives were included and treated as expert voices throughout the process.
- How does the USRAP process work?
- How do refugees experience USRAP?
- What challenges and obstacles do refugees newly resettled in the U.S. encounter?
- What is the current state of the U.S. domestic resettlement infrastructure?
- What are the implications of an FY21 PD of 125,000?
- What challenges and opportunities do RAs face both historically and currently?
This document details recommendations for the rebuilding of USRAP in light of the dismantling that took place from 2016-2020 and the need for overall improvement in the process from the perspective of refugees.
Exploratory interviews that lasted approximately 1 hour were the primary data collection method. These were conducted via semi-structured interview scripts.
- Ethical implications were taken into account while conducting interviews. For instance, when speaking with refugees, interviewers did not take their line of questioning into realms that may have caused harm (e.g., torture). Former refugees and SIVs offered information on this but were not asked to elaborate. Interviewees were told before the interview that they can stop or take a break at any point.
- Introduction was structured and uniform.
- Most of the questions were open-ended based on high-level focus questions and specific themes tailored to the positionality of the interviewee.
- Similar questions were used with interviewees of similar positionalities (eg, refugee state coordinators)
- Interviewers added follow-up questions when pertinent and allowed interviewees to guide the conversation to some extent. Questions were also added iteratively throughout the research process.
- Refugee participants were offered compensation of $40 and interpreters were also compensated $40 for their time. (The interpreters were most often family members and not professionals which is why the payment was lower than professional rates).
Recruitment took place throughout the four months of research. The team sought out participants from as many institutions involved in USRAP as possible. Interviewees were recruited via direct contact (e.g., email) and professional social networks (e.g., introductions). Snowball sampling was used when applicable.
Included but were not limited to:
- Former PRM and ORR staff
- Former RSC staff
- Nonprofit refugee service delivery staff
- Non-profit refugee advocate organizations
- Resettlement Agency staff
- Refugees resettled in the U.S.
- SIV recipients
Our interviews were primarily conducted via Zoom. Two were conducted in-person in socially-distanced outdoor settings following COVID-19 best practices.
52 Total Interviews included:
- 20 resettlement agency staff (national and local)
- 12 former refugees + Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipients from 11 countries
- 6 state refugee coordinators
- 2 former RSC staff
- 2 professors
- 3 resettlement advocates
- 2 data experts
- 1 former ORR staff member
- 2 refugee law experts
- 2 private sponsorship experts
Refugee and SIV Participants
|Participant Number||Country of Origin||Year Arrived in the U.S.|
Interviews were scheduled by the Project Coordinator. Video Conference interviews were held over Zoom and included real-time transcription (most often by Project Coordinator). In-person interviews were recorded on a digital recorder with verbal and written consent and then were transcribed.
DATA MANAGEMENT PROTOCOL
Transcripts were stored on the project’s Shared Google Drive available to all members of the team. When using quotes from these transcripts, we reached back out to participants for their consent in order to respect the confidentiality agreement outlined in the introduction to all interviews. Affinity mapping was used to identify interview themes and interviews were further sorted by topics using Mural and Airtable.
Allocations The weekly process whereby resettlement agencies divide up and select refugee cases for assurance.
Assurance The agreement of a resettlement agency to sponsor a refugee; this agreement is signed by an RA official and submitted to the Refugee PRocessing Center (RPC) for forwarding overseas; a copy of the agreement is included in the refugee’s travel documents for presentation at the U.S. port of entry.
Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) PRM is a humanitarian bureau within the U.S. Department of State that provides aid and sustainable solutions for refugees, victims of conflict and stateless people around the world, through repatriation, local integration, and resettlement in the United States.
International Office of Migration (IOM) The International Organization for Migration is an intergovernmental organization that provides services and advice concerning migration to governments and migrants, including internally displaced persons, refugees, and migrant workers.
Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) The Office of Refugee Resettlement is a program of the Administration for Children and Families, an office within the United States Department of Health and Human Services, created with the passing of the United States Refugee Act of 1980.
Priority Categories There are three categories of individuals that qualify to enter USRAP. The order of priority does not determine the precedence in which the case is processed.
Priority 1 (P1) Individual refugee cases referred to the United States by designated entities due to their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement.
Priority 2 (P2) Groups of special concern designated by the Department of State as having access to USRAPs due to their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement.
Priority 3 (P3) Individual refugee cases from designated nationalities granted access for purposes of reunification with family members already in the U.S.
Refugee The U.S. interpretation of the international definition of a refugee is a “person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Refugee Processing Center (RPC) The central data repository for all overseas and domestic resettlement operations; the RPC manages WRAPS, the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System.
Refugee Status Determination (RSD) Refugee Status Determination is the legal or administrative process by which governments or UNHCR determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under international, regional or national law.
Resettlement Agency (RA) An RA is a non-profit organization that through a cooperative agreement with PRM provides sponsorship and resettlement services for refugees entering the U.S. There are currently nine RAs in the U.S.
Local Resettlement Office Either an affiliate or a field office of the national resettlement agency.
Resettlement Caseworker The resettlement caseworker provides case management the first few months after refugees arrive in the country and is the primary point of contact with the refugee during their initial months in the United States.
Resettlement Support Center (RSC) PRM funds and manages nine RSCs around the world, operated by international and nongovernmental organizations and one U.S. interests section. Under PRM’s guidance, the RSCs prepare eligible refugee applications for U.S. resettlement consideration. The RSCs collect biographic and other information from the applicants to prepare for the adjudication interview and for security screening.
Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) A special immigrant is a national of Afghanistan or Iraq who qualifies for resettlement in the U.S. because they were employed in Afghanistan or Iraq by or on behalf of the U.S. government or by the International Security Assistance Force. The individuals would have to have been employed for a minimum of two years between 2001 and 2020 and are eligible to resettlement for themselves and their immediate family. The Iraqi SIV program stopped taking new applications after 2014.
State Refugee Coordinator The administrator who oversees the federally-funded refugee programs in a state
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Also known as the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR is a United Nations agency mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself, and assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.
United States Customs & Immigration Services (USCIS) The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is the government agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States.
U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP)
U.S. Tie A family member or friend in the United States who can provide assistance to a refugee during the resettlement process.
Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS) A case management system used to track the movement of refugees from various countries around the world to the U.S. for resettlement under USRAP. (to be replaced by START)
USRAP Overseas Processing Insights
USCIS Staff and Circuit Rides
In order to interview refugees for a second time, USCIS staff go on “circuit rides” so that they can travel in a scheduled manner to various host countries and sites within those countries where refugees are currently living. It is important to note that the timing of these circuit rides is crucial to moving refugees through the pipeline and that timing can be complex to schedule since IOM and/or UNHCR arrange the logistics for the interviews for the RSCs and USCIS in some locations. This means that the RSCs and USCIS need to notify IOM and/or UNHCR of their scheduled circuit rides well in advance so that they can coordinate their schedules.
The relationship between USCIS and the RSCs is important for coordination purposes. As one former RSC representative recalls, “USCIS isn’t always willing to go to places that RSC is willing to go to due to requirements” for safety. For example, during her time working in Africa, they were “only willing to go into a camp for 7 days before going back to an urban center. This creates coordination challenges…USCIS officers can sometimes choose where they want to go.” It seemed to her that many of the more tenured and qualified USCIS officers would choose to go to places other than Africa (like Thailand). However another former RSC representative expressed her confidence in the USCIS teams, “I have a very positive impression of them and the office, and the biggest challenge is getting them the information as soon as they need them. There’s so much training and background research on their officers and I consider them to be very knowledgeable and good at their jobs. The relationship between RSCs and USCIS can be thought to be bad because of the challenges of scheduling, and WRAPs doesn’t help with that. So when there may be a debate about how and when to schedule that can be challenging, especially in the past few years when the refugee caseload was assigned to asylum.” However, this same person notes that, “USCIS policy is lacking. The RPC and PRM in the last few years have pushed for USCIS clarity on policy. They make it unilaterally and often on the ground. There was a rule for a long time that cases needed 30 days between pre-screen and USCIS interview to help with fraud, but it wasn’t a global rule so there were questions around the requirement. People who are double registered, what do we do with them? Sticky cases waiting for outside clarification is a huge percentage, 10-15%. PRM is well aware of that, but clearly guidelines for that would be something we’ve often advocated for.”
RSC view of WRAPS
Only certain members of the RSC have full access to WRAPS, and very few remotely. RSCs do not have visibility into cases in terms of progression of processing etc. “You could ask for something to be expedited but to not have a sense of why that may not happen was a source of frustration,” one former RSC representative explained. Refugees also expressed frustration over the lack of visibility into their case status.
Researchers attempted to make sense of how the systems are linked without being able to access the systems and talk with RSC staff during the processing. One former RSC staff member believes, “Everything filled out in WRAPS is auto populated in the I-590 and the G-730. The next purpose is to prepare the case file for USCIS. It’s a bit more analytical to understand the question of whether or not there are any challenges your case may face or any additional information USCIS may need.”
As of September 2020, USRAP began transitioning from WRAPS to START. Researchers were not able to access START nor much information on START from insiders due to the timing of this transition and the project. One interviewee, a former RSC representative, believes that:
“One of the major improvements with START is that there is a more efficient tool. It’s more than just the mechanics. The pre-USCIS pipeline in Africa is tens of thousands of people. And their process is to normally see cases in order. But it’s hard to do that when you need to pick one place and not the other, or restrictions about where they will travel. Or it is informed by who could depart. Some nationalities have the SAO, so if we’re trying to increase numbers we will prioritize cases that are able to move to get people out. But it is a zero sum game. Then knowing how many officers to send takes a while, then we find out which cases to see, then we identify the caseload and schedule them and send them. These steps may not happen in a lot of time and there can be last minute changes. It’s a dance between where are the cases, where are the prescreen, and where can USCIS get to. I don’t think that’s bad because it requires a lot of thought, but can be a challenge when USCIS doesn’t have the ability to make decisions ahead of time.”
Reception and Placement Core Services Checklist
Date of Arrival: _______________ Non U.S. Tie: _____ U.S. Tie: _____
Case Manager: ______________
|Principal Applicant:||Case Number:||Family Size:||Alien Number:|
|A. PRE-ARRIVAL PLANNING||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Met with U.S. based relative to coordinate provision of core services and complete the UST Consultation Form (if applicable)|
|Minor Statement of Responsibility signed for all minors M2-M7 (if applicable)|
|Minor Suitability Determination conducted through home visit for all minors M2-M7 (if caretaker is in the US, if not, this needs to be completed within 7 days after arrival of the family)|
|Secure appropriate housing that meets all safety and occupancy standards, and is affordable based on projected family income|
|Complete home safety checklist and ensure housing is in good repair and accessible for all known disabilities|
|Arrange for procurement and delivery of all required material needs including furniture and household supplies appropriate for the family composition (see supply list)|
|Set up utilities|
|Prepare for airport pick-up with appropriate interpretation|
|Ensure client(s) will be provided a hot, culturally-appropriate meal upon arrival plus one days’ worth of additional food supplies and staples|
|B. WITHIN 24-HOURS: ARRIVAL AND INITIAL HOME VISIT||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Complete airport pickup with appropriate interpretation, and transportation to safe housing (temporary or permanent)|
|Housing & personal safety orientation provided at apartment.|
|Provision of a hot, culturally-appropriate meal plus one days’ worth of additional food supplies and staples (adequate food must be provided or ensured until SNAP benefits are active)|
|Conduct home visit the next calendar|
|C. WITHIN 5 WORKING DAYS||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Provide pocket money to each adult family member and ensure acknowledgement (required by PRM within 30 days)|
|Conduct Intake Interview|
|Provide or ensure appropriate and seasonal clothing, footwear, and diapers as needed (throughout the duration of the R&P period)|
|D. WITHIN 7 WORKING DAYS OF ARRIVAL||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Assist to apply for cash assistance as appropriate|
|Assist to apply for SNAP (food stamps)|
|Assist to apply for medical assistance (insurance)|
|Medical Appointment for Class A Physical Conditions|
|Assist to apply for Social Security card|
|E. WITHIN 10 WORKING DAYS OF ARRIVAL||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Develop Resettlement Service Plan for each person in the case (required by PRM within 30 days) and monitor and document progress throughout the R&P period|
|Enroll clients who are employable in appropriate employment services|
|Enroll clients who are non-employable in appropriate services|
|Enroll all adults into ESL classes (if applicable based on language ability)|
|Assist client(s) to complete change of address form (AR-11) with the US Department of Homeland Security & US Post Office (must be completed within ten days of moving for every individual for all initial, temporary, and permanent housing)|
|F. WITHIN 30 DAYS OF ARRIVAL||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Completion of the required health screening|
|Assist to access necessary health services (throughout the duration of the R&P service)|
|Assist to access immunizations required for adjustment of status and school enrollment|
|If Class A mental condition, assist to access medical appointment and assessment|
|Assist with meeting school enrollment requirements for children and with registering for school|
|Information provided on adjustment of status and options for applying for relatives (i.e., Visa 93, AOR, etc). Include when and where to apply.|
|Explanation of legal requirement to repay IOM travel loan|
|3. HOME VISITS|
|Complete a home visit (within 30 days)|
|Complete an additional home visit if the client moves within the R&P period|
|Assist with Selective Service registration for all males 18-25 years of age|
|F. WITHIN R&P PERIOD (TYPICALLY WITHIN 90 DAYS OF ARRIVAL)||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Provide Cultural Orientation covering 15 required topics and content objectives|
|Complete an assessment of the client’s understanding of the Cultural Orientation topics to ensure understanding|
|Enroll client in all eligible public benefits (SSI, WIC, LIHEAP) as soon as s/he meets the enrollment requirements|
|Provide transportation in compliance with local motor safety laws & provide transportation to job interviews and job training|
|Ensure all minors M2-M7 receive a dental exam (as applicable)|
|Ensure regular and personal contact with all minors M2-M7 throughout the duration of the R&P period|
|G. PRIOR TO CLOSING THE CASE||Date of Service||Provided by:|
|Ensure clients acknowledge all R&P funds given to them or spent on their behalf|
|Verify transition from [RA’s] R&P financial assistance to other source(s) of income through a transitional budget (may happen sooner depending on how long R&P funds last)|
|Ensure all required core services are complete.|
|For minors M2-M7, within 14 days after the 90th day, conduct a follow-up home visit to assess the continued suitability of the placement and to assess the need for continued services, arranging for such services if possible|
|For minors M2-M7, within 30 days after the 90th day, submit a minor follow-up evaluation report and send a copy to the State Refugee Coordinator|