History of Refugees in the U.S.

Mohamed Malim

Refugees Entering America - Epimonia

What Does Refugee Resettlement In The U.S. Look Like?

All across the world there are individuals who are fleeing their homes and countries in search of a safe new home where they do not have to be concerned about the possibilities of experiencing famine and drought, being caught up in the middle of civil violence, suffering persecution or undergoing any other harsh circumstance.

While these individuals are fleeing their own countries, there are other host countries on the other side of the situation. Many times, refugees flee to countries that are close by for the sake of an easier journey. For example, because of the intense, ongoing violence in Syria, many refugees are fleeing to nearby Turkey for safety. The latest number released from this conflict stands at a total of 3.6 millions Syrians who are now living in Turkey as a result of the ongoing conflict. Myanmar, another country which is experiencing tremendous amounts of civil violence and persecution, has caused more than 1.1 million refugees to flee and Bangladesh has become the new home for just over 900,000 of those refugees.

Though the United States of America may seem like an unlikely location for refugees to flee to because of the distance between locations, there are refugees who are continually accepted into the United States. For America specifically, the definition of a refugee is someone who is “[...] located outside of the United States, [...] of special humanitarian concern, demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution [...], not firmly resettled in another country, and admissible to the United States.”

With the tremendous amount of wars and areas of unrest in the world currently, it is simple to understand that there are countless refugees who are needing to flee to a land with safety and an increased opportunity to earn a living. 

Refugees Fleeing For America

Early Refugees In America

As the years have progressed, the United States of America has continued to be one of 28 resettlement host countries throughout the world who accept refugees into the country. Though the numbers change from year to year because of various conflicts and many other factors, the U.S. remains a source of safety and hope for thousands of refugees.

This act of accepting refugees into the country began in 1948 when more than 250,000 refugees from Europe were accepted into the U.S. This act was soon followed by several pieces of legislation being approved to accept additional refugees from Yugoslavia, Poland, China and Cuba. However, it wasn’t until 30 years later when the U.S. created the Refugee Act of 1980, which is what the country continues to base its current refugee guidelines on. Since this act was passed, with the addition of the 150,000 individuals in the Indochina Migration of 1975, the U.S. has accepted three million refugees. 

Recent Refugee Statistics In U.S.

Stepping into more recent history, because of specific and long-lasting events throughout the world, the U.S. has accepted more refugees from certain countries over the past decade. Since 2009, the U.S. has admitted more refugees from Burma than any other country (21% of the 648,482 refugees since 2009). Following the refugees from Burma are Iraqi refugees who account for 20% of the total admittals and then Bhutanese refugees who account for 14% of the 648,482 total refugees accepted into the U.S. 


The last three years of refugee migration have changed slightly as Burma still remains in the top five countries from which the U.S. accepts refugees. However, the greatest number of refugees accepted into the U.S. over the past three years have been from the Democratic Republic of Congo as extreme civil violence has continued along with numerous health emergencies.

As refugees attempt to be accepted into the U.S., they will have to go through the long and oftentimes difficult process of approval. First, the individual will need to make sure he or she is registered as a refugee through the UN Refugee Agency, and then proceed to wait until the selection happens. Though the individual does not have a say in what country will accept him or her into the nation, the UN Refugee Agency will recommend the best fit for the specific individual. Once the refugee has been selected for placement, the timeline often spans between 12 to 24 months before the individual is able to come to the U.S. where further screening will occur. 

Refugees Living In America

When the time comes for placement within the U.S., refugees are oftentimes placed in cities where they may have existing family members or friends living there, but they are also given the choice of where they would like to reside based on considerations such as cost of living, community services, etc. 

Based on the most recent fiscal year of 2019, the state which received the greatest number of refugees was Texas which received 9% of the total number. The coastal states of California, New York and Washington were the next greatest welcomers of refugees by each accepting 6% of the incoming refugee population. Additionally, it’s important to note how each refugee group is spread throughout many of the states in the U.S. - there are few states which only accept one or two groups of refugees. Many of the states throughout the country are home to multiple groups of refugees. To view this information a little more clearly, check out the following graphic from Smithsonian Magazine:

Smithsonian Magazine Graphic of Refugee Dispersement

Refugees & The American Economy

From the time of the first refugees coming to America until today, these individuals have made a great contribution to the economy. With each individual possessing their own strengths and talents, they have the opportunity to greatly contribute to each of the local economies they end up living in. Numbers from a 2015 analysis show that $4.6 billion was generated from a pool of 181,000 refugee entrepreneurs who employed local workers and provided important services. Even more, some of the largest businesses in the U.S. were created by refugees themselves - Google, WhatsApp and PayPal, just to name a few.

As the U.S. continues to accept refugees into the country and provide a safe place to live, there may still be some difficulties they find themselves in. It might be in a time like this where you ask yourself, “How can I help?” It doesn’t need to be anything radical, but maybe it consists of simple, everyday choices.

One option to help refugees currently in America is to purchase our unique bracelets. These bracelets are created from recycled life vests which were used by refugees who crossed the Mediterranean Sea in search of their own safety.  In each purchase, 50% of the proceeds will be donated to refugees who are in need of educational and advancement assistance. Check them out today!

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