How the dwindling of US resettlement admissions exacerbates tensions at the core of refugee resettlement

The first two years of the Trump presidency have brought about a dramatic decline in the admission of resettled refugees. The United States resettled 92,000 refugees in 2016, the last year in which the annual resettlement ceiling was set by the Obama administration. By contrast, 33,000 refugees were resettled in 2017, and as of September 2018 only about 20,000 refugees have resettled in the US. It has been reported that the resettlement ceiling for 2019, which is to be set shortly, could be as low as 25,000 admissions. This is less than Canada ’s current resettlement numbers and an unprecedented downwards shift in US resettlement admissions since the establishment of the US resettlement program in 1980.

The decline in resettlement is part of the Trump’s presidency broader anti-immigration agenda. At the same time, the anti-refugee sentiment seems to be specifically driven by a small number of White House officials whose power appears to have increased compared to supporters of refugee resettlement. There is also pressure to relocate the responsibilities for resettlement admissions from the State Department to the Department of Homeland Security.

The dismantling of the US resettlement program has been criticised by many as putting more vulnerable refugees at risk, as threatening the United States’ humanitarian leadership, and potentially undermining US foreign policy goals. There has been less focus on the domestic impact of the decline of resettlement and how that decline affects the scope of and support for the international resettlement system. The following paragraphs discuss these two points. We explore them at more length in our recently published volume Refugee Resettlement: Power, Politics and Humanitarian Governance , co-edited by Garnier, Liliana Lyra Jubilut and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and to which Darrow contributes a chapter.

Refugee resettlement in the US is supported by the work of locally embedded agencies in communities around the country, which provide core resettlement services to arriving refugees and their families. There are currently nine institutional networks of such local resettlement agencies, each of which has a national office. The nine national organizations hold contracts with the Department of State for the administration of resettlement programs. In exchange for the implementation of resettlement services at the local resettlement agencies, the US Department of State pays a per capita grant associated with each refugee that arrives. Some of this grant is allocated directly to refugee-related costs such as rent, while a portion of the grant is set aside for the administrative costs of operating a robust social service agency – such as staff salaries. Although in the past the contractual relationship between the Department of State and the nine national resettlement organizations has been characterized as a partnership, the Trump Administration’s approach to the relationship has been destabilizing and destructive.

The Trump Administration’s drastic decreases in US refugee admissions threaten the U.S. refugee resettlement system. First, at the end of 2017 the Department of State announced that they would not be renewing resettlement service contracts with any local resettlement agency slated to serve less than 100 refugees in the upcoming year. Thus, the federal administration set the conditions for agency closures and then delivered those very conditions when so few refugees were admitted to the US. Second, due to the per capita payment structure, when refugee arrivals are low, so too are the Department of State grant-allocated funds. Research [1] and news reports have shown one of the effects of low refugee arrivals to be that resettlement agencies are forced to operate with smaller budgets. One adaptive management response to this condition is to lay off or fire experienced resettlement case workers. In more drastic cases the agencies are forced to close altogether.

Syrian refugees Rawa Hawara and Sousan Alziat take notes during their vocational ESL class at the International Rescue Committee center in San Diego in 2016. (Frederic J. Brown AFP)

The Trump Administration’s refugee admissions policies also have an indirect deleterious impact on the refugees who are resettled in the US. The pressure caused by an anaemic administrative budget within local resettlement agencies affects the way the remaining caseworkers deliver services to their refugee clients. Research shows that as resettlement agencies attempt to bolster their administrative budgets with alternative sources of funding, they are bound to the performance measures associated with these alternative grants. One key source of such funding is the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the US Department of Health and Human Services, which supports services intended to help refugees find employment. Some of the measures for this grant require agencies to report in absolute numbers how many refugees the agency assists in finding employment and how quickly. As the numbers of refugee clients for whom the agency can report outcomes dwindle ever lower, the pressure workers place on each refugee to accept work quickly seems to increase. Research indicates that caseworkers responding to these conditions end up prioritizing refugee client integration through low wage work at the expense of other important aspects of integration , such as political incorporation.

The dwindling of refugee resettlement in the US has noticeable global impacts. Refugee resettlement programs are not mandated by international law, and no country in the world has legislation requiring that a particular number of people fleeing persecution be resettled on their territory. This has contributed to the very limited size of resettlement as a global response to forced displacement: less than one per cent of the total refugee population is resettled in any given year. Few countries engage in resettlement, and three–the US, Canada and Australia–have resettled the largest numbers of refugees for decades. In fact, almost every year since 1980, the US has resettled more refugees than all other resettlement countries put together. Thus the recent US cuts in refugee admissions have a dramatically disproportionate effect on the worldwide resettlement system.

We recognize that since the mid-1990s, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has considerably expanded its global resettlement advocacy . It has published a number of guidelines that advise on categories of refugees to prioritise for resettlement, effective management of the resettlement process, the “strategic” use resettlement in combination with other “durable solutions” to forced displacement.[2] Civil society refugee advocates and supranational institutions such as the European Commission have supported UNHCR’s efforts. Since the mid-2000s, governments of a few resettling states have engaged in the dissemination of their resettlement expertise to potentially new resettlement countries, with Canada taking a  leadership role.[3] This has led to an expansion of the number of countries resettling refugees,[4] and there was a significant increase in the global offering of resettlement places between 2013 and 2016.

The decline of resettlement places in the US adds pressure on existing resettling states. It also gives license to states unwilling to resettle refugees, such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary, to even more forcefully refuse to contribute to resettlement efforts.

However, UNHCR’s advocacy has not resulted in a sustainable increase of resettlement places. Civil society efforts to include a non-binding global resettlement target in the 2016 United Nations Declaration for Refugees and Migrants failed to achieve this result .  On the European continent, a currently discussed permanent European Union (EU)-wide resettlement scheme does not include mandatory resettlement targets. In this context, UNHCR and resettlement advocates have started to promote “alternative pathways” to protection[5], including admission of refugees as international students or as skilled migrants.

The decline of resettlement places in the US adds pressure on existing resettling states. It also gives license to states unwilling to resettle refugees, such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary, to even more forcefully refuse to contribute to resettlement efforts.

In sum, the sharp decline of US resettlement places is exacerbating tensions at the core of refugee resettlement practice in local, national and global perspective. To resolve these tensions, profound structural changes are required, including the establishment of resettlement quotas and reforms to the funding structure of refugee settlement so to ensure the availability of resources and expertise. Yet even countries currently demonstrating global resettlement leadership, such as Canada, are far from such reforms. This is deeply troubling as robust resettlement programs are so needed in the context of the current global refugee crisis.

Adèle Garnier is a lecturer in politics and public policy at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on the multi-level governance of refugee resettlement and refugee employment support. Jessica Darrow is a lecturer at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Her research and scholarship focuses on political and programmatic challenges of the refugee resettlement regime in the United States.


[1] See also Jessica Darrow (2018) ‘Working It Out in Practice: Tensions Embedded in the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Resolved through Implementation’ in A. Garnier, L. L. Jubilut and K. Sandvik, Refugee Resettlement: Power, Politics and Humanitarian Governance, New York: Berghahn Books.

[2] See Joanne van Selm. ‘Strategic Use of Resettlement: Enhancing Solutions for Greater Protection?’, in Garnier, Jubilut and Sandvik, ibid.

[3] See Garnier, ‘Resettled Refugees and Work in Canada and Quebec: Humanitarianism and the Challenge of Mainstream Socioeconomic Participation’, in Garnier, Jubilut and Sandvik, ibid.

[4] See Amanda Cellini, ‘Current Refugee Resettlement Program Profiles’ in Garnier, Jubilut and Sandvik, ibid.

[5] See for instance the change of name of the EU-focused European Resettlement Network, ERN, into ERN+, with the ‘+’ referring to alternative pathways (

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