Refugees and Asylees in the United States
The United States grants humanitarian protection on a limited basis to refugees and asylees from diverse countries throughout the world. This Spotlight examines the data on persons admitted to the United States as refugees and those granted asylum in 2010. It also provides the number of refugees and asylees who received lawful permanent resident (LPR) status in 2010.
The data come from the 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the 2010 Annual Flow Report on Refugees and Asylees, and the 2010 Annual Flow Report on US Legal Permanent Residents, published by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).
Note: All yearly data is for the government's fiscal year, which is from October 1 through September 30.
Click on the bullet points below for more information.
Adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Status Data
Refugees and asylees are aliens who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin or nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.
In the United States, the main difference between refugees and asylees is the location of the person at the time of application. Refugees are generally outside of the United States when they are considered for resettlement, whereas asylum seekers submit their applications while they are physically present in or at a port of entry to the United States.
Concurrently, refugees and asylees also differ in the way they are treated by immigration and refugee law at the time of application and admission (see sidebar).
Aliens seeking asylum in the United States can submit an asylum request either affirmatively or defensively.
If the case is denied, an applicant may appeal for additional hearings with the Board of Immigration Appeals or, in some cases, with federal courts.
Aliens may also request asylum at the port of entry (POE) by informing an inspection officer that he or she is fleeing persecution or seeking asylum. The individual is then referred to an asylum officer for a credible fear interview to determine if he or she has a verifiable fear of persecution. If the claim for asylum is verified, the case is referred to an immigration judge and the individual is placed in nonexpedited removal proceedings. If the claim is denied, the individual is subject to removal.
Both refugees and asylees are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status after one year of continuous presence in the United States as a refugee or asylee.
Until 2005, there was an annual limit of 10,000 on the number of asylees who were authorized to adjust their status to LPR. The implementation of the REAL ID Act eliminated that cap. No annual limit has since existed on the number of refugees eligible to adjust to LPR status.
Since 2008, the annual ceiling for the number of refugees admitted to the United States has remained at 80,000.
The last time the admission ceiling for refugees was revised was in 2008 when it was set at 80,000, substantially higher than the ceiling of 70,000 established in 2002 and maintained through 2007. The ceiling was raised by 10,000 in response to an expected increase in refugee resettlement from Iraq, Iran, and Bhutan. However, the current ceiling is 65 percent lower than the 1980 ceiling of 231,700. (see Figure 1).
The 80,000 worldwide ceiling for 2010 is further broken down into regional caps: 15,500 from Africa (up by 3,500 compared to 2009), 18,000 from East Asia (down by 2,500), 2,500 from Europe and Central Asia (no change from 2009), 5,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean (no change), and 38,000 from Near East and South Asia (down by 1,500); 500 were unallocated reserve (compared to 0 in 2009 and 8,000 in 2008).
Over 73,000 refugees arrived in the United States through the resettlement program in 2010.
Nationals of Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan made up almost two-thirds of refugee arrivals to the United States in 2010.
Though the number of refugees arriving from the top three countries (Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan) has stayed relatively similar to 2009 levels, there have been some changes since 2008. At that time, refugees from Burma made up 30.2 percent of all refugees (compared to 22.8 percent in 2010) and refugees from Bhutan made up 8.9 percent of all refugees (compared to 16.9 percent in 2010 — nearly double that share).
There has also been a large decline in the number of refugees from Iran since 2008, while the numbers of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Eritrea have seen sharp increases. Persons from Iran accounted for 4.8 percent of refugee arrivals in 2010, compared to 8.8 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have increased more than four-fold since 2008 (727 in 2008, compared to 3,174 in 2010), and arrivals from Eritrea have increased more than ten-fold since 2008 (251 in 2008, compared to 2,570 in 2010).
In recent years, Iraqis have made up the largest share of refugees resettled in the United States.
California and Texas received the largest numbers of resettled refugees, taking in more than one-fifth of resettled refugees in the United States.
In 2009, the top six states were California (15.1 percent, or 11,274), Texas (11.0 percent, or 8,195), New York (5.9 percent, or 4,411), Arizona (5.8 percent, or 4,312), Florida (5.6 percent, or 4,193), and Michigan (4.7 percent, or 3,500), together taking in 48.1 percent of all refugee arrivals.
In 2010, 44 percent of refugee arrivals were principal applicants.
Similarly, 43.6 percent of refugees (32,511) were principal applicants, 38.4 percent (28,651) were children, and 18.0 percent (13,440) were spouses in 2009.
Over 21,000 individuals were granted asylum in 2010, reflecting a slight downward trend since 2008.
Of all the individuals granted asylum in 2010, 53.3 percent (11,244) were granted asylum affirmatively, while 46.7 percent (9,869) were granted asylum defensively.
Two in five foreigners who obtained US asylum in 2010 were from China, Ethiopia, and Haiti.
More specifically, 6,683 persons from the People's Republic of China received asylum in 2010, accounting for 31.7 percent of all individuals who received asylum that year. The next four largest origin groups were Ethiopia (1,093), Haiti (832), Venezuela (660), and Nepal (640), accounting for another 15.3 percent. Together, nationals of these five countries plus Colombia (591) and Russia (548) made up over half of all individuals who received asylum status in 2010.
Adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Status Data
Over 136,000 refugees and asylees adjusted to LPR status in 2010.
More than two-thirds of refugee/asylee LPR status adjusters in 2010 were refugees.
Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2010, Refugees and Asylees Tables. Available Online.
Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2010, Legal Permanent Residents Tables. Available Online.
Kelly O'Donnell and Kathleen Newland. The Iraqi Refugee Crisis: The Need for Action (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2008). Available Online.
Definitions of terms can be found at the website of the Office of Immigration Statistics. Available Online.
UNHCR Country Profile: Iraq. Available Online.
Further MPI resources
MPI's recent report, The Faltering US Refugee Protection System: Legal and Policy Responses to Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Others in Need of Protection. Available Online.
Discussion on the Situation of Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador. Available Online.
MPI Leadership Visions: United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff. Available Online.
Potential Reforms to the US Refugee Resettlement Program. Available Online.
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