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Refugees in American cities: 5 key things to know

Where refugees come from and where they settle in the U.S.

Boise, Idaho—a city that’s taken in more Syrian refugees than New York and Los Angeles, combined—welcomes refugees on November 21, 2015.

On Friday, January 27, the Trump administration issued an executive order that bans travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, bans all refugee admissions for 120 days, and bans Syrian refugees indefinitely.

The news comes at a critical point for refugees, and refugee-focused organizations like The UN Refugee Agency. In their annual report to Congress for the fiscal year 2017, the U.S. Department of State-operated Refugee Processing Center (RPC) explains that there is currently a greater number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons—more than 65 million—than at any time on record.

In light of President Trump’s executive order, questions arise: Exactly how many refugees have come to the United States and where are they coming from? Where are these refugees settling? Here are five things to understand about refugees and American cities.

Who constitutes a refugee?

The Refugee Processing Center says that the term “refugee” means “any person who is outside any country of such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

That’s a long-winded way of saying that a refugee is someone who can’t return to their country of origin due to legitimate fear of persecution. Meanwhile, the term immigrant applies to someone who moves to the United States for personal—and often economic—reasons, like a job or to be near family.

Refugee arrivals by nationality, from October 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016.
Courtesy of the Refugee Processing Center

How many refugees come to the United States and where do they come from?

According to the Pew Research Center, about 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created standards for granting asylum to refugees.

The countries of origin for refugees admitted to the U.S. has, historically, fluctuated depending on global events and American politics. About 112,000 refugees arrived each year from 1990 to 1995, many from the former Soviet Union.

In the fiscal year ending September 2016, the U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees, just shy of the stated goal of 85,000. 2016 saw the most refugees admitted in any year during the Obama administration, and, in its annual report, the Refugee Processing Center told Congress that it hoped to admit 110,000 refugees in 2017, in an attempt to address the worsening global situation.

The RPC reports that in 2016, the greatest number of refugees hailed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 16,370 people. The next largest groups came from Syria (12,587), Burma (12,347), Iraq (9,880), and Somalia (9,020).

Fiscal year 2016 also saw the highest number of Muslim refugees on record. According to the Pew Research Center, 39,000 Muslim refugees entered the U.S. last year, comprising 46 percent of admissions, and on par with the percentage of Christians admitted (about 44 percent).

Refugee arrivals by state from October 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016. A total of 25,671 people refugees settled in the U.S. during this period.
Courtesy of the Refugee Processing Center

Where do they settle?

Once they arrive in the United States, refugees most often settle in California, Texas, and New York. Taken together, these three states settled over 20,000 refugees in 2016, almost 25 percent of the total number admitted.

Other, less populous states report substantial numbers of refugees in 2016: Michigan accepted 4,258, Ohio admitted 4,194, and Arizona accepted 4,110. Some states—like Wyoming, Delaware, and Hawaii—accept very few at all.

A number of factors dictate the geographic spread: For one, the federal government negotiates with on-the-ground voluntary agencies that contract with the State Department. Local non-profits help determine which cities are good for relocation, with a special emphasis on housing availability and affordability.

Based on these factors, the RPC records the maximum number of refugees that each American city can accept. The biggest cities in the United States (often where housing is most expensive) accept relatively few refugees: In fiscal year 2016, Los Angeles’s total capacity was 690 refugees; New York City’s was only 365.

Medium-sized cities like Indianapolis (with a determined capacity of 1,505 refugees), Louisville, Kentucky (1,369), and Troy, Michigan (1,084), are often a better match, with their emphasis on plentiful jobs and a lower cost of living.

Refugees can also request to be settled in cities where they already have family or where there is a large immigrant presence. This process means that thriving refugee communities exist throughout the United States, like the Nepalese families profiled in Curbed’s Burlington chapter of “10 Streets That Define America.” Other examples cited by Time magazine include Minneapolis, home to a large Somali population that settled in the early 1990s during the Somali civil war; California, where Vietnamese who fled Vietnam in the 1970s largely settled; and Dearborn, Michigan, where a thriving Arab-American population has existed for decades.

Participating agencies sponsor the refugees once they arrive, providing cultural orientation, housing, furnishings, food, and clothing for at least 30 days, and assistance with health care, employment, and education. While some of this assistance—which can last up to one year—might be contingent upon staying in the community that sponsored their arrival, once a refugee is free to relocate to any other city or state in the United States.

A look at how many refugees—and where they’ve come from—the United States has accepted since 1975.
Courtesy of the Refugee Processing Center

What’s the economic impact of refugees on cities?

Although hard to quantify, data shows that accepting refugees can have a positive impact on local economies.

Studies conducted by Global Detroit—an organization looking to improve Michigan’s economy by working with immigrants—show that refugees and immigrants are almost twice as likely as the U.S.-born population to have a four-year college degree. Refugees are also more likely to be self-employed—a common metric for entrepreneurship—and many are educated in STEM fields. According to the Migration Policy Institute, two-thirds of refugee men are employed, compared to 60 percent of U.S.-born men.

Cleveland, Ohio, has seen an influx of refugees from Somalia and Iraq, which brought short-term costs like food and shelter. But locals found that the refugees were not a long-term burden on the community and that instead, the economy had improved. Likewise, refugee-settlement agencies in Columbus, Ohio, estimate that refugees contribute $1.6 billion annually to the central Ohio economy.

As economist Jeffrey Sachs—director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a senior United Nations advisor—told PBS, the economic impact of refugees in America is “positive, because there are gains when people come, add to the labor market, add skills, and, generally, earn less than what they can contribute to the society as a whole.”

Do refugees automatically become U.S. citizens?

No. According to the State Department, refugees maintain their status for 12 months after their arrival, during which they are authorized to work. After 12 months, refugees are required to adjust their status to Legal Permanent Resident—also known as a green card holder.

A refugee can apply for full citizenship after five years in the U.S. This is not a requirement, however, and refugees are allowed to remain the United States as Legal Permanent Residents.