U.S. Refugee Resettlement: How It Works, What It Costs


Syrian refugees rest on the floor of a railway station in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo: Mstyslov Chernov / Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. refugee vetting and resettlement process is lengthy, complex and not widely understood.

In most cases, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) first determines who is eligible for resettlement. That process is detailed here.

"A minority of refugees considered for resettlement in the U.S. enter our program through direct applications, often through family members who are already in the United States or through another U.S. affiliation," the U.S. State Department explains.

Once a refugee is referred to the U.S. for consideration, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program's (USARP) - an interdepartmental program overseen by the Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) - begins its own vetting process.

U.S. refugee admission levels are set annually by a presidential determination, established in conjunction with the cabinet and Congress, according to the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Processing priorities "determine which of the world's refugees are of special humanitarian concern to the United States." There are three priority levels currently:

  • "Priority 1: Cases that are identified and referred to the program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States Embassy or a designated nongovernmental organization (NGO).
  • Priority 2: Groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.
  • Priority 3: Family reunification cases (spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of persons lawfully admitted to the United States as refugees or asylees or permanent residents (green card holders) or U.S. citizens who previously had refugee or asylum status)."

Guided by admission levels and processing priorities, USRAP involves a multistep vetting process:

1. One of nine resettlement support centers (RSCs) conduct an initial interview with candidates and initiate a biographic / background screening process.

RSCs are located in Amman, Jordan, Bangkok, Thailand, Damak, Nepal, Havana, Cuba, Istanbul, Turkey, Moscow, Russia, Nairobi, Kenya, Vienna, Austria and Quito, Ecuador.

2. USCIS reviews the information provided by the RSC, collects additional data and coordinates with government agencies to complete the background screening.

This involves a sit-down interview in the country where the person is currently located and processing the person's legal names and aliases through national and international criminal databases.

"If any national security concerns are raised, either based on security and background checks or personal interviews or testimony," a Controlled Application Review and Resolution Process (CARRP) begins, USCIS explains.

CARRP seeks to "ensure that immigration benefits or services are not granted to individuals who pose a threat to national security and/or public safety, or who seek to defraud our immigration system."

3. If background checks and other vetting processes are completed successfully, a "Registration for Classification as Refugee" (I-590) form is completed and the person's case is sent back to the RSC for final processing.

This involves arranging travel plans (via the UN's Migration Agency: IOM), medical exams and a cultural orientation.

"Before departing for the U.S., refugees sign a promissory note agreeing to repay the U.S. government for their travel costs," the State Department explains. "These loans are typically repaid within five years and are an important step for refugees seeking to establish a credit history once they arrive in the United States."

The RSC also begins coordinating with one of nine nongovernmental U.S. resettlement organizations that will sponsor the refugee.

These organizations - six of which are faith-based - meet weekly with State Department officials in order to "match the particular needs of each incoming refugee with the specific resources in a local community." They arrange for local groups to meet refugees at the airport and assist them in finding housing and employment.

4. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) conducts the final vetting of the refugee once they arrive at a U.S. airport - working with airlines' staff and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to ensure that the person arriving is the same person approved for resettlement.

The total cost for refugee resettlement is difficult to assess, but some data is available.

The U.S. donated $1.49 billion to UNHCR in 2016 - more than four times the amount provided by the European Union (the second highest donor).

In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. budget related to refugee vetting and resettlement was:

  • Department of Homeland Security refugee processing: $50 million
  • Department of State refugee admissions: $656.6 million
  • Department of Health and Human Services refugee resettlement: $720.9 million

The annual per refugee resettlement cost was $16,795.30, based on 84,994 refugees resettled in the U.S. in 2016 and $1.42 billion in refugee-related expenses in the budget.

The top five countries of origin in 2016 were the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq and Somalia, according to Pew Research Center analysis of State Department data. The top five U.S. states welcoming refugees were California, Texas, New York, Michigan and Ohio.

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