Resettlement of refugees

The Biden administration will begin to increase the number of refugees welcomed to resettle in the USA. The previous administration had reduced to very low numbers how many refugees could come to the U.S. Learn about the refugee resettlement process in the USA.


resettlement volunteer with family

After registering as refugees with the United Nations, refugees and their families can apply for resettlement. Refugees have no guarantee of where they will go.

For fiscal year 2021, which is October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021, the USA will accept a maximum of 15,000 refugees, down from a high of 207,116 in 1980. You can see the Refugee Council USA’s refugee arrivals tracker to keep for the latest number of admissions.

On February 4, President Biden signed an executive order to restore the refugee program. He is asking Congress to increase the number of refugees allowed to enter in 2021.

What is the US resettlement process?

Before admission to the United States, each refugee must undergo an extensive interview, screening, and security clearance process. USA for UNHCR shows the following screening process:

  • Screening by eight federal agencies including the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI
  • Six security database checks and biometric security checks screened against US national databases
  • Medical screening
  • Three in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security officers

Once a refugee receives security clearance, the US State Department forwards his or her case to a voluntary agency in the USA (the International Rescue Committee, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others). These voluntary agencies decide where refugees will be resettled within the USA.

After waiting for many years, this can happen quite quickly, often in a matter of weeks. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) helps arrange travel to the United States. Refugees sign a promissory note to repay their travel costs and attend an overseas cultural orientation.

How are refugees helped when they arrive?

When refugees arrive, non-profit organizations who contract with the federal government, known as refugee resettlement agencies, provide basic resources to meet the refugees’ immediate needs for the first 30-90 days, such as housing, food, and medical care. Most resettlement agencies have additional programs to continue to provide job placement and case management assistance for at least eight months. Most refugees also access community services such as ESL classes, legal assistance, citizenship classes and more through their resettlement agency or other local service providers.

Refugees are eligible for public benefits which differ by state. Families who would otherwise meet eligibility qualifications may access Medicaid and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Adult refugees without children who do not qualify those programs may be eligible for eight months of medical insurance and limited cash assistance (Refugee Cash Assistance) through the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Refugees are expected to become self-sufficient through employment soon after arrival in the USA. They typically lose their federal refugee-specific benefits after this time period and are expected to be working and self-sufficient, although they will qualify for most of the public assistance available to other low-income Americans.

In additional to the many other benefits to US communities in resettling refugees, they contribute billions of dollars to the US economy.

You can learn more about refugee resettlement and refugee benefits.

Which refugee groups are in the USA today?

Our modern-day resettlement program began in the 1970s to resettle Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War and refugees from communist regimes. In fact, according to the US Office of Refugee Resettlement, 77% of the 3 million refugees who arrived in America since 1975 were Indochinese or citizens of former Soviet countries.

In more recent years, our refugee arrivals have reflected other conflicts. The US today has refugees from all over the world.

This chart shows the origin countries of refugees coming to the USA in 2019.

As well as people arriving through the official resettlement program, the United States today also has a significant population of Central and South American migrants who, while not officially labeled refugees, are fleeing their homes in search of economic and physical safety. This includes families fleeing violence, unaccompanied minors, women facing domestic abuse who are not protected by their governments, and migrant workers who are searching for the means to provide for their families. Learn more about undocumented immigrants in the USA.