Refugees are people who are authorized to come to the United States because they claim to be fleeing individual persecution by their home government.

Although the United Nations has identified nearly 12 million individuals as current refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is seeking to permanently resettle only a fraction of those. In 2001, that number came to about 100,000. Roughly 70,000 refugees are currently being resettled in the U.S. annually, many of whom do not meet the U.N. resettlement criteria.

“Decisions about refugee the United States are shaped by a variety of sources: foreign governments, the media, political pressure groups, and the people who claim to be refugees. Considerations have gone well beyond the simple desire of the American people to assist those who are truly persecuted.”
-Eugene McCarthy,
A Colony of the World.

“Resettlement remains the durable solution of last resort. UNHCR staff the world over concentrate first on options for voluntary repatriation and local integration and propose resettlement when these solutions are not possible.”
-UNHCR’s 1995 annual report

“This country has focused on resettlement ... to the point that we have not spent a great deal of time on the use of diplomatic, military, and economic mechanisms to prevent refugee flows to begin with and to bring about the conditions that would allow people to be repatriated.”
-Prof. Charles Keeley, Georgetown University.

2001 Top 10 Donor Countries to International Refugee Aid Agencies

United States $387.1 million
Japan $121.8 million
European Union $83.1 million
Germany $64.2 million
Sweden $64 million
United Kingdom $62.8 million
Netherlands $60.9 million
Norway $56.5 million
Denmark $49.6 million
Switzerland $41.2 million


To qualify as a refugee, a person must meet the following definition from Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act:

“any person 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....”

The distinction between a refugee and an asylee is that refugees apply for entry to the U.S. from abroad, and asylees are already in the U.S., legally or illegally, when the application is made. The distinction originally also required that refugees apply for protection from outside their home country. However, in some cases, the U.S. now accepts applications from people while still in their homeland.

The Refugee Act of 1980 set up a system of consultation between the executive branch (State Department) and the legislative branch to establish the annual number of refugees to be admitted for permanent residence. The ceiling is on the number of visas to be issued to refugees in a given year.

Spouses and children of refugees or asylees may be accorded derivative status as refugees even though they might not meet the definition in their own right. For example, the spouse of a dissident politician might not have a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country but may be accorded refugee status to accompany the spouse who does face persecution.

Since 1980, the U.S. standard for screening refugees on a case-by-case basis has been distorted by other acts of Congress designed to confer refugee status on specific groups of aliens. Most of these distortions are a hold-over from the ideological Cold War. An example is the Cuban Adjustment Act, which provides for automatic adjustment to permanent residence for Cubans who have been in the U.S. for one year. This measure invalidated the need to individually screen Cubans, most of whom entered the United States illegally by boat, to determine whether they feared persecution if they were returned to Cuba. Congress in effect decided that because Cuba under Castro was communist, in general no Cuban should be deported. The nationals of no other country have the same screening exemption.

There are, however, other provisions that have been adopted akin to the Cuban provision. In 1989 a provision named after its sponsor—Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ)—was adopted that established a form of “class rights” for persons behind the Iron Curtain and certain Communist-controlled countries of Southeast Asia who claimed persecution for their Jewish or Christian religious belief. Rather than having to substantiate as individuals a well-founded fear of persecution, the Lautenberg Amendment beneficiaries only have to demonstrate that there is a credible basis that they could be persecuted based on their adherence to a faith that has experienced persecution in the past. The Lautenberg provision has been extended year by year and is still in effect. About 375,0000 Christians and Jews are estimated to have come to the U.S. under this provision.

refugee admission chart

Another embellishment on the refugee definition came with Public Law 100-202, which provided for Amerasians, presumably whose parentage was due to American involvement in the Vietnam War, to enter as refugees. The argument for taking in the Amerasians was not that they were persecuted, but rather that they were were social outcasts. In addition to the Amerasians, their parent(s) or others with whom they were living were also made eligible to be treated as refugees.

In 1996, the definition of a refugee was expanded by Congress to include people who have been subjected to forced family planning practices or who fear such practices. This created a wide open door for Chinese illegal immigrants to apply for asylum.

In effect, the refugee definition and screening test established in 1980 has been bypassed in these cases. What each of these refugee program add-ons had in common was that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would not consider any of them as refugees under international standards.

The United States also accepts into its refugee resettlement program people who have not been found to qualify as refugees in their own right, but rather are accepted because they are related to persons who earlier were accepted as refugees by the U.S. However, unlike the regular immigration family sponsorship provision, the refugee who sponsors a relative as a refugee accepts no financial responsibility. The newcomer is in effect sponsored by the American taxpayer and becomes immediately eligible for public assistance programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing.

Out of Step

The United States needs to revamp its refugee policy to meet the realities of the post-Cold War world. Despite the warming of relations between East and West and the advent of nascent democracies across Eastern Europe, we still provide for the admission of about 45,000 individuals from these regions. Allotting places for individuals from nations friendly to the United States detracts from the true purpose of the refuge: namely, to provide assistance to individuals fleeing persecution.

Filling a Quota

One flaw in our nation’s refugee policy comes from using arbitrary allotments for determining refugee admissions. The U.S. admits refugees based on where the President and Congress set the quota, not based on U.N. resettlement needs or criteria. As a result of this disjunct, the State Department fills the quotas with people who do not qualify as refugees needing resettlement under the U.N.’s established definition. Many take advantage of the opportunity to use refuge as a backdoor through which to immigrate.

Missing the Point

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that foreign aid and assistance is best utilized when the resources are spent on alleviating problems at their source. 1 The United States channels its refugee resources to the populations uprooted and relocated, rather than on their home country.

Mistaking the Target

Efforts on behalf of refugees should be re-targeted away from resettlement and toward tackling problems at their source. The U.S. Committee for Refugees has estimated that a day’s worth of funding needed to settle a single refugee in the United States would cover the needs of 500 refugees abroad.2 Instead of resettling 100,000 refugees here every year, we could be helping five million refugees abroad.

Making Things Worse

Recognizing the volatility of Third World countries, the UN asks industrialized nations to concentrate their settlement efforts on relatively few refugees with special needs; that is, those whose lives are in danger. The United States’ policy of allowing a few individuals from many parts of the world to relocate to America has exacerbated the problem by initiating a stream of resettled refugees who attract others to want to follow them, rather than return home when conditions permit.

[1] The State of the World’s Refugees 1995. Oxford University Press, 1995.

[2] Roy Beck, The Case Against Immigration, W.W. Norton & Company, 1996, p. 53.

Updated 2/03