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The US refugee system

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How Does the U.S. Refugee System Work?

Authors: Claire Felter, Assistant Copy Editor/Writer, and James McBride, Senior Online Writer/Editor, Economics
February 6, 2017


The United States has long accepted refugees fleeing persecution or war. From taking in hundreds of thousands of Europeans displaced by World War II to welcoming those escaping from Communist regimes in Europe and Asia during the Cold War, the United States has helped define protections for refugees under international humanitarian law. Beginning in 1980, the U.S. government moved from an ad hoc approach to the permanent, standardized system for identifying, vetting, and resettling prospective refugees that is still in use today.

The size of the U.S. refugee program has often fluctuated. But the war in Syria and the resulting migration crisis in Europe has increased policymaker scrutiny on arrivals from the Middle East, beginning with the Barack Obama administration. President Donald J. Trump, citing mounting concerns over the potential for terrorist infiltration, ratcheted up that scrutiny with his January 2017 executive order placing a temporary ban on all refugee arrivals, sparking debate over the scope of U.S. refugee policy.

What is a refugee?

There is sometimes confusion between the terms “migrant,” “refugee,” and “asylum seeker.” “Migrant” is an umbrella term for people leaving their homes, and often crossing international borders, whether to seek economic opportunity or escape persecution.

As defined by U.S. law as well as the 1951 United Nations Geneva Convention, refugees are migrants who are able to demonstrate that they have been persecuted, or have reason to fear persecution, on the basis of five “protected grounds:” race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.


Background & Analysis

CFR Event Confronting the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Around the Web: Lawfare The Dangers of Walling Off America

CFR Blog: Women Around the World U.S. and International Policy to Protect Refugees: A Timeline

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