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Refugees and Asylees in the United States

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While the United States has historically led the world in refugee resettlement numbers, admissions fell dramatically under President Donald Trump, whose administration increased vetting procedures and reduced the number of refugees accepted annually to record lows. In 2018 the United States fell behind Canada as the top resettlement country globally. And in fiscal year (FY) 2020, the United States resettled fewer than 12,000 refugees, a far cry from the 70,000 to 80,000 resettled annually just a few years earlier and the 207,000 welcomed in 1980, the year the formal U.S. resettlement program began.

President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to reverse this trend and, after initial wavering, in early May increased the limit for resettlement of refugees in FY 2021, which runs through September, from the historically low 15,000 set by Trump to 62,500. Biden also pledged 125,000 resettlement places in FY 2022. However, the slow pace of reviving the resettlement system and other challenges in the COVID-19 era make it unlikely that the full number of slots will be filled, at least in FY 2021.

In addition to accepting refugees for resettlement, the United States also grants humanitarian protection to asylum seekers who present themselves at U.S. ports of entry or claim asylum from within the country. In FY 2019 (the most recent data available), the United States granted asylum status to about 46,500 individuals, the highest level in decades, due in part to increased asylum applications and the accelerating pace of adjudications.

Partly because refugee resettlement has been disrupted amid the pandemic, the need for humanitarian protection is as high as ever. Global displacement was estimated to have reached a record high 80 million people by mid-2020, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of these, approximately 26.3 million individuals were formally designated as refugees, 45.7 million were internally displaced persons (IDPs), 4.2 million were asylum seekers, and 3.6 million were Venezuelans displaced abroad. UNHCR has projected that more than 1.4 million refugees are in need of durable resettlement beyond their countries of first asylum.

Using the most recent data available, including 2020 and historical refugee arrival figures from the State Department and 2019 asylum data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), this Spotlight examines characteristics of the U.S. refugee and asylee populations, including top countries of origin and top states for refugee resettlement. It also provides numbers for refugees and asylees who have become lawful permanent residents (LPRs, also known as green-card holders), which refugees (but not asylees) are required to do after they have been physically present in the country for at least one year.