Urban Wire The debate versus the reality of refugees in the US
Hamutal Bernstein, Nicole DuBois
Display Date

Media Name: childrefugee.jpg

To meet the Trump administration’s goal of reducing immigration, refugees have been targeted along with other immigrant groups over the past year and a half. The administration has raised alarms about security threats and has emphasized the costs to public coffers posed by refugees, issuing iterated travel bans and drastically reducing refugee admissions.

US refugee admissions last year hit a historic low, and entries this year are likely to be much lower. We are now halfway through the fiscal year, and only 10,548 refugees have been admitted so far out of the 45,000-person ceiling recently put in place.

After a year of policy upheaval, tremendous stress for families and communities, legal battles that are now before the Supreme Court, and cuts to funding for refugee-serving organizations, the refugee resettlement system is battered. The future of the refugee resettlement program is uncertain despite its long history and the success and contributions of refugees in the US.

What is most shocking is the massive gap between the terms of the policy debate and the reality of who refugees are and how they live, work, and take part in the American communities they now call home—a gap we explore in a report released today.

What does the evidence say about refugees in the United States?

Research shows that refugees contribute to the US workforce and society. After a period of adjustment after arrival, refugees integrate on economic, linguistic, and civic measures and contribute to communities across the US.

Refugees are a diverse group, and their individual circumstances vary greatly by the amount of time they have spent in the US and by their country of origin, educational background, gender, and age at arrival. Over time, they improve their English language skills, though many remain limited by low English proficiency and low educational attainment, which influences their economic outcomes.

On average, refugees participate in the labor force at high rates, their earnings rise, and their use of public benefits declines. Those who arrive when they’re young often graduate from college. Set on a fast track to obtain green cards and citizenship compared with other immigrants, most become US citizens, and many own homes and businesses.

Refugees contribute to local communities by working in key industries, revitalizing distressed neighborhoods, and adding diversity. But they can also impose pressures on local infrastructure like schools and hospitals, and their arrival in previously homogenous communities can lead to tension.

Historically, communities across the US have supported the humanitarian mission of the refugee resettlement program while acknowledging the economic and social pressures newcomers pose. The resettlement program, a public-private partnership, relies on the support of organizations and receiving communities to welcome new refugee arrivals and assist in their transition. In fact, during the latest federal policy developments, many states and localities have remained committed to hosting refugees.

What does the national debate look like?

Concerns about refugee resettlement began to rise about a decade ago, coinciding with the beginning of the recession and a broader trend of anti-immigrant legislation at the state and local levels. In addition to economic and social concerns, the idea that refugees pose security threats—that the resettlement program could be a means of entry for potential terrorists—arose after 9/11 and gained real traction when millions of refugees fleeing Syria captured the public consciousness and President Obama raised refugee numbers.

Following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California, dozens of Republican governors said they would not resettle Syrian refugees in their states, and some state legislatures introduced bills to limit refugee resettlement.

Antirefugee advocacy groups have pushed an anti-Muslim campaign, using misinformation to associate refugees with religious extremism and sexual violence. Despite strong evidence finding no connection between refugees and terrorist acts, security concerns continue to animate opposition to the refugee program.

In addition to halting admissions and requiring a review of screening procedures, the administration’s executive order mandated a government study of the costs of the refugee admissions program. A draft of the internal study, which was leaked to the press, found that resettled refugees’ tax contributions outweighed the costs of providing them with government services. This echoed findings from other research. The administration officially released a three-page version of the study that included only costs and not contributions.

Refugees differ in critical ways from other immigrants

The national debate about immigration often does not clearly distinguish between refugees and other immigrants who enter through nonhumanitarian channels. While refugees come with a wide range of backgrounds and trajectories, their participation in the refugee program suggests common circumstances that other immigrants may not share.

  • The US accepts refugees on humanitarian grounds; refugees come here seeking safety and refuge from violence, torture, or persecution. They do not voluntarily choose to migrate but are forced to leave their home countries because of circumstances outside their control.
  • After being forced from their home countries, refugees usually experience a long period of displacement in refugee camps or other vulnerable conditions while they go through an exhaustive vetting process in applying and waiting for permanent resettlement.
  • When they arrive, they have few resources. The US provides limited public assistance benefits right away to help refugees settle into their new lives and become self-sufficient (in contrast to other immigrants, who are barred from federal benefits for five years).

Policy conversations should be informed by the reality of refugees in communities across the country and the evidence base on refugee integration. That evidence shows how successful refugees integration is over time in the US, despite the fact that refugees come from challenging circumstances. Although the policy conversation is focused on refugees as security, economic, and cultural threats, research shows that refugees contribute to the vitality of communities across the US.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Immigration
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Immigrant children, families, and communities Refugees and global migration Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population Income and Benefits Policy Center
Related content