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What just happened?

On May 3, President Biden issued a statement confirming that he will raise the annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year.

Because the number of refugees admitted into the United States is based on the federal government’s fiscal year (which runs from October 1 of one calendar year through September 30 of the next) the original number was set by President Trump. He had capped the number of refugee admissions for fiscal year 2020 to 15,000.

Biden had said in February he intended to the raise the cap this year, but last month he seemed to change his mind, saying that Trump’s cap of up to 15,000 refugees this year “remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest.”

After hearing criticism about the policy from various refugee advocates, including his party and many Christian organizations, the president reversed his decision. He also says he plans to increase the number of refugee admissions to 125,000 in fiscal year 2021.

What constitutes a refugee?

The U.S. government defines a “refugee” as someone who:

  • Is located outside of the United States
  • Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States
  • Demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group
  • Is not firmly resettled in another country
  • Is admissible to the United States

A refugee does not include anyone who ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Refugee status is also available to any people who have been forced to abort a pregnancy or to undergo involuntary sterilization, who has been persecuted for failure or refusal to undergo such a procedure, or for other resistance to a coercive population control program.

There are approximately 20 million refugees in the world.

Who decides how many refugees can be admitted?

The number of refugees admitted each year is decided by the President of the United States. Before the beginning of each fiscal year, the president, in consultation with Congress, establishes an overall refugee admissions ceiling as well as regional allocations and issues a Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions.

Before the revision by President Biden, the allocation was 7,000 for Africa, 3,000 for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 1,500 for Near East and South Asia, 1,000 for East Asia, and 1,000 for an unallocated reserve.

How many refugees are usually admitted each fiscal year?

Since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, annual admissions figures have ranged from a high of 207,116 in 1980 to a low of 15,000 in 2020.

What countries do most refugees come from?

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the leading countries of nationality for individuals admitted as refugees in 2019 were Congo (43 percent), Burma (16 percent), Ukraine (15 percent), Eritrea (5.9 percent), and Afghanistan (4 percent). These top five countries made up 85 percent of total refugee admissions in 2019.

Since the inception of the refugee program in 1980, the nationalities of refugees admitted has changed as the federal government responded to different global conflicts. For example, since 1975, the nation has resettled roughly 3 million refugees, with nearly 77 percent being either Indochinese or citizens of the former Soviet Union.

Since 2000, the U.S. has admitted just over 1.1 million refugees from around the world, with 16 percent (178,663) coming from Burma, 13 percent (148,248) from Iraq, and 10 percent (114,949) from Somalia.

Where are refugees resettled?

The DHS says says more than half of admitted refugees in 2019 (53 percent) were resettled in the top ten resettling states: Texas, Washington, New York, California, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan.

Texas, Washington, and New York resettled the most refugees (8.1, 6.5, and 6.2 percent of admitted refugees, respectively), and Kentucky, Idaho, and Washington resettled the most refugees per capita, each resettling between 26 and 32 refugees per 100,000 population. Majorities of refugees resettling in Kentucky and Idaho were from Congo (74 percent each), while the majority of those settling in Washington were from Ukraine (71 percent).

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is the federal government agency charged with providing benefits and services to assist the resettlement and local integration of refugee populations. Some of the ORR’s programs include Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance (for up to 8 months); Refugee Social Services, such as job and language training (for up to 5 years); and temporary custody and care to unaccompanied refugee children.