What is a refugee?

According to the United Nations, a refugee “is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”1

Is there really a refugee crisis or is forced migration just receiving more media coverage now?

The UN has noted that we are “witnessing the highest level of displacement on record.”  More than 21 million refugees, half of them under 18, have fled their homes because of war, armed conflict, and violence. Three countries – Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia — account for more than 50 percent of the total; nearly five million refugees are from Syria, alone.2 They are fleeing civil war, political instability and violence driven by the turmoil in the Middle East, made worse by the chaos caused by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Why do refugees want to come to the United States?

For many people around the world, the United States represents the hope of freedom from political persecution and fear, an attractive environment of ethnic and religious pluralism, and the opportunity to have a better life.

What is the U.S. Role in Resettling Refugees?

According to Human Rights First, “The U.S. pledge to resettle at least ten thousand Syrian refugees this fiscal year amounts to only about two percent” of the nearly half million Syrian refugees needing resettlement.3

Won’t refugees pose a security risk to Americans?

Refugees seeking entry into the United States are thoroughly vetted in an extensive process that includes multiple background and biometric screenings by the National Counterterrorism Center/Intelligence Community, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, and State Department. These agencies check to see if “the individual is a security risk,” if she or he has “connections to known bad actors,” and if the individual has any “outstanding warrants/immigration or criminal violations.”4

The fingerprints of applicants are checked against FBI, Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense databases. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the United States since September 11, 2001, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—two of whom were planning attacks outside the country.”5 Nothing is 100 percent but, given that the annual number of gun deaths in the United States is 33,636 people, refugees pose a negligible threat compared to armed citizens.6

Rather than pose a risk to American citizens, refugees make significant contributions to the communities in which they settle and, overall, have settled well into American society according to a report by the Center for American Progress and the Fiscal Policy Institute that tracked the refugees settled in the United States over a ten-year period.7 Refugees are themselves fleeing violence and terrorism in their homelands. Many have additionally experienced trauma and deprivation during the perilous journeys they undertook leaving their homelands only to have subsequently faced hardships in refugee camps while they waited for their security clearances to settle in the United States.

Does the Federal Government provide the full costs of settling refugees?

No. The Federal Government provides limited assistance for refugee settlement, consisting of 90 – 120 days of rent, and utilities for 6 months. The resettlement program has been designed as a joint public-private partnership with private agencies, NGOs, and community groups filling gaps in resettlement costs. In Indiana. Exodus Refugee, an organization dedicated to refugee resettlement, offers support services to families for about 5 years, but they aspire to have families be self-sufficient in 3 months.8

 Will refugees be willing to assimilate to American culture?

Refugees are required to apply for a green card within 1 year after their arrival and are eligible to become citizens 5 years later. Among other social and medical services, Exodus Refugee provides English language instruction and cultural orientation for their clients. These services help refugees adjust to life in the contemporary United States. At the same time, it is important to remember that the United States is culturally and ethnically diverse: over the years, immigrants have helped to vitalize American culture by introducing new cuisines (such as pizza and tacos), vibrant forms of music and dance (salsa and bhangra, for example), and poetry and literature (Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, to name just a few).  In time, new refugees will enrich American culture by introducing new forms of cuisine and artistic expression.


  1. USA for UNHCR, “What is a Refugee?” http://www.unrefugees.org/what-is-a-refugee/
  2. UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance,” http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html
  3. Human Rights First, “Obama Administration Resettles 2,340 Syrian Refugees in July, Marking Progress Toward 2016 Goal,” http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/press-release/obama-administration-resettles-2340-syrianrefugees-july-marking-progress-toward-2016
  4. The White House, “The Screening Process for Refugee Entry Into the United States,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states
  5. Migration Policy Institute, “Ten Facts About U.S. Refugee Resettlement,” https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/Refugee-Facts-Oct-2015-FINAL.pdf
  6. The most recent figure is for 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/injury.htm
  7. Center for American Progress and Fiscal Policy Institute, “Refugee Integration into the United States,” https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/15112912/refugeeintegration.pdf
  8. Exodus Refugee, “The Life Ahead,” https://exodusrefugee.org/