The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 10, 2018

What a new dataset can (and can’t) reveal about refugees in America

The administration recently announced a further drop in the ceiling of refugee admissions to a record low of 30,000 for the next fiscal year. Those who support this action have offered unsubstantiated claims about refugees and their lives in the US. The administration has also rejected government reports that provided evidence countering security concerns and quantifying refugees’ contributions.

Amid this upheaval, a new data source on refugees has become available: the fiscal year (FY) 2016 Annual Survey of Refugees (ASR), the only national survey of recent refugee arrivals conducted in the US. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) uses these survey data for its annual report to Congress on recent refugees’ progress toward self-sufficiency and integration.

This is the first year since the ASR’s inception in the 1980s that the government has made available the underlying dataset for researchers to access and conduct their own analyses. The dataset is now available through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

The Urban Institute has been working on this survey for the past few years, collecting and analyzing the ASR, preparing the public use dataset, and leading a survey redesign. This work gives us insight into what the survey data can and cannot reveal about refugees.

The ASR data release is an important advancement, as prior research has relied primarily on estimating refugee status from census data or has been based on limited samples. But researchers should also keep the data’s limitations in mind.

What the dataset tells us about refugees…

The new dataset offers a nationally representative survey of refugees who were resettled in the US between FY 2011 and FY 2015. This period precedes the changes to the refugee admissions system put in place by the current administration in FY 2017, when refugee resettlement numbers dropped.

It includes data on 1,500 households and more than 4,000 individuals. Reflecting the demographics of refugee inflows in that period, refugees report the following countries as the most common countries of origin, among many others: Iraq (22 percent), Burma (17 percent), Bhutan or Myanmar (12 percent), Somalia (7 percent), and Nepal (5 percent).

The dataset also includes information about

  • demographics and household structure;
  • employment, wages, and income;
  • educational background, education being pursued in the US, English proficiency, and participation in children’s schooling;
  • geographic mobility;
  • green card adjustment;
  • health conditions and health insurance;
  • public benefits receipt; and
  • housing.

Many of these elements aren’t included in ORR’s annual report, giving researchers the opportunity to break ground and reveal new insights about refugees to the public.

…and what it can’t tell us

The survey covers a six-year period, and circumstances have changed.

The ASR measures outcomes only for the first six years after arrival in the US, but integration is a decades-long, multigenerational process. Many elements of integration, like learning English, earning higher wages, and becoming a homeowner, can take more than the first few years to unfold. It is critical to keep this in mind as the data are interpreted and used for policy and research.

The dataset also reflects resettled refugees under the previous administration, which totaled about 70,000 annually for much of the study period and represented more than 200 countries. The current administration has restricted both numbers and the mix of countries from which refugees originate.

The sample size is limited.

Though representative of the entire FY 2011–15 refugee population, the dataset still includes only 1,500 households and 3,000 refugee adults. The ability to split households or individuals into subgroups for analysis is limited.

Even in ORR’s annual report, which breaks out estimates by gender and arrival year, estimates are reported with corresponding margins of error. Researchers interested in key subgroups, like refugees from a specific country of origin or professionals who arrive with a college degree, will have very small samples to work with, and we do not recommend such analyses given the way the sample was constructed.

The questions need an update.

The FY 2016 survey used a questionnaire that has not been updated in decades. Parallel to the continued annual survey collection, the US Department of Health and Human Services invested in a redesign of the questionnaire which our team at Urban led. The new content will be considered and possibly adopted in the annual data collection in the coming years.

Some questions assume that refugees were adults when they arrived in the US.

Many refugees were children when they were resettled in the US. We know that one-third of refugees in the 2016 ASR dataset were younger than 18 when they arrived (and another 14 percent were 18 to 24 years old). That means that questions about employment before arrival, for example, are not relevant to many household members.

Proxy reporting can lead to inaccuracy.

Similar to many national surveys, the ASR telephone interview is structured to have heads of household (who are the principal applicants on the original refugee case) report responses on behalf of other eligible adults in their household.

Asking respondents to share that kind of detailed information about their household members is challenging: the number of hours they worked last week, their hourly wage, and the timing of when they got their first job in the US are all questions that they likely cannot answer accurately on behalf of others.

Several questions also ask respondents to report which household members were beneficiaries of social programs in the previous 12 months, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Supplemental Security Income, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. There are several challenges here, beyond the unavoidable methodological limitation of self-reporting on public assistance.

For instance, we know from our testing work that respondents are often confused about what the different programs are and what they are called. Respondents often know they received some help, but they are uncertain of the program’s name.

Despite these limitations, this dataset should yield valuable insights into refugee resettlement. We are excited to see the dataset go public, and we urge researchers to work carefully with the data, which provide a rare source of rigorously collected information on a commonly misunderstood group.

Congolese refugee Dimari Bera and other recent arrivals to the United States enjoy the view at the Native American Passamquoddy reservation on August 27, 2018 in Sipayik, Maine. As part of Portland's Mariner summer immersion program, recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers have been taking part in cultural exchanges with Maine communities, including the field trip to the reservation in 'Down East' Maine. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

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