July 28, 2014

Where refugees to the U.S. come from


In response to the recent surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America, the Obama administration is considering executive action to create a refugee resettlement center in Honduras. According to data from the Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center, more than 3 million refugees have arrived in the United States since 1975.

A look at the makeup of where refugees come from and their number provides a glimpse into global events and the U.S.’s role in providing a safe haven for people around the world. Most of today’s refugees are from Burma (Myanmar) and Iraq. The U.S. admitted fewer refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in 2001, but the total annual number of refugees has trended upward since then.

The U.S. Code defines a refugee as any person outside of the U.S. that is of special humanitarian concern to the U.S. and “has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Refugees are different from asylum seekers, who meet the same definition but are already residing in the U.S. or pursuing admission at a port of entry (like the U.S.-Mexican border), according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

As an example, a proposed refugee resettlement center in Honduras would ostensibly deal with future refugees, while unaccompanied Honduran minors already in the U.S. would be treated as asylum seekers. Data provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement indicate that since the start of the year, over 30,000 unaccompanied minors have been released to sponsors (primarily relatives) throughout the U.S. while they await immigration proceedings.

Modern waves of refugees arriving in the U.S. reached their peak in 1980 when President Carter signed the U.S. Refugee Act. The law established the Office of Refugee Resettlement, raised overall refugee quotas, and provided a provision to deal with special humanitarian concerns. This was largely in response to the massive waves of refugees coming to the U.S. in the 1970’s from Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact, more than 200,000 immigrants, largely from Southeast Asia, were given refugee status by the U.S. the year the Refugee Act was signed into law.

The 1990s saw a higher number of refugees from Europe — largely driven by those fleeing political turmoil in the former Soviet Union and the genocide in Kosovo. However, the past decade has marked a near-stop in the flow of European refugees to the U.S. — in 2013, less than 1% of U.S. refugees came from Europe. And only 6% came from Latin America.

As of 2013, overall refugee volume is hovering at median levels historically. The number of refugees experienced a dramatic dip following the passing of the Patriot Act in 2001 — fewer than 30,000 refugees were let into the U.S. each year in 2002 and 2003, down 60% from the pre-9/11 level in 2001. But, upticks in the number of refugees came in 2004 with a wave of Somali refugees, and in 2008 when thousands of Burmese and Bhutanese were granted refugee status.

The U.S. currently has caps for refugees coming from different parts of the world. Each year, these quotas are reexamined and are subject to modification based on the changing flow of refugees. As an example, in 2013 a maximum of 5,000 refugees were allowed into the U.S. from Latin America and the Caribbean. The region nearly met its quota that year, with more than 4,400 refugees coming into the U.S. — more than doubling the number of refugees who entered the previous year. However, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics, since 2003 immigrants seeking protected status from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have overwhelmingly sought asylum once in the U.S. as opposed to applying for refugee status from outside the U.S.

Topics: Immigration, Wars and International Conflicts

  1. is an Intern in Advanced Analytics at the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project.

  2. Photo of Ruth Igielnik

    is a research associate at Pew Research Center.

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  1. Muthyavan.2 years ago

    Conflicts in middle east and Africa has created large amount of refugees. The future will have a big challenges for the free world after the end of second world war.

  2. Carl Stoll2 years ago

    W#ho cares about continents? What worries me is their religion.

    1. David Resetar2 years ago

      Which refugees are you wanting to prohibit?