Research Report Bringing Evidence to the Refugee Integration Debate
Hamutal Bernstein
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There is a major disconnect between the current policy debate and the reality of refugee outcomes in the US. After a tumultuous year of policy changes for the refugee resettlement program and as refugees are being framed as security, economic, and cultural threats, policymakers must consider the evidence base on the realities of refugees and their local communities.

Today’s policy debates are not grounded in the evidence that underscores how successful refugee integration has been and how refugees differ from other immigrants. To that end, this report provides context on resettled refugees and the policy conversation, synthesizes evidence on integration outcomes, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the data sources and methods on which researchers rely.

This clarifies what we do and do not know. We highlight gaps in the research base that, if filled, would provide a fuller picture on both sides of the integration equation: refugees and receiving communities. 

Current policy debates focus on skills-based admissions, costs, and security

Current immigration policy debates revolve around reducing immigration across the board, with a privileging of skills-based admissions, concern over security threats and screening procedures, and a focus on the costs rather than the contributions immigrants make to their communities.

Refugees make up a small part of the immigrant population and are entering the US to escape violence and persecution, but federal policy changes over the past year have targeted them alongside other groups. Since the first travel ban in January 2017, policy changes have caused major shocks to the refugee resettlement system. Refugee admissions in fiscal year 2017 hit a historic low, and admissions in fiscal year 2018 are likely to be much lower.

What does the research say about refugee integration outcomes?

Resettled refugees have entered the US on humanitarian grounds. They have been admitted for safety and refuge from violence, torture, or discrimination, not to contribute to our workforce. And yet, refugees do contribute to the US workforce and society.

Recent research shows that after a period of adjustment after arrival, refugees integrate on economic, linguistic, and civic measures. On average, they participate in the labor force at high rates, their earnings rise, and their use of public benefits declines. Their English language skills improve, and those arriving during their youth have strong educational attainment. Set on a fast track to obtain green cards and citizenship compared with other immigrants, most refugees become US citizens, and many own homes and businesses.

There is not just one “refugee experience.” They are a diverse group, and outcomes vary. Many remain limited by low English proficiency and low educational attainment, which influences their economic outcomes.

Looking beyond economics to health, well-being, and social connection

Recent research on refugees, including the cost report mandated by executive order, has focused on refugees’ economic costs and contributions, but this balance-sheet mentality has shortcomings. Refugees contribute to local economies, but they contribute in other ways. They bring new perspectives and diversity but sometimes disrupt local communities and have a stressful effect on local infrastructure like local schools and hospitals. Changes for the receiving community can be more challenging to measure and quantify than measuring outcomes for refugees.

To inform resettlement policymaking decisions, we need to look beyond employment and collect more information on refugees’ noneconomic outcomes. In addition to economic, linguistic, and civic factors, researchers and stakeholders agree that health, well-being, and social connection are critical from a policy perspective.  

Gaps need to be filled to inform the policy conversation

Any research on refugees is difficult given their vulnerable status, their small numbers, their geographic dispersion, and diversity in their language background and demographic characteristics. The data available to assess refugee integration are limited in some ways.

Although existing evidence on key integration outcomes answers some questions, there are many gaps in our knowledge that merit study. Learning more about these issues will help our understanding of refugee integration in the US and inform decisionmaking. We must continue to push the evidence base to develop a stronger understanding of both sides of the integration equation—refugees and receiving communities.

This report was updated in July 2018 to correct a citation.

Research Areas Immigration
Tags Immigrant access to the safety net Immigrant children, families, and communities Refugees and global migration Immigrants and the economy Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center