“We started our lives here from zero,” recalled Mohammed, a refugee from Baghdad, Iraq, in a recent phone interview. Mohammed was resettled in Boise, Idaho, in 2015, with his wife Luma and their three children.1 Before they left Baghdad, Mohammed was a veterinarian and laboratory owner, while Luma had been a professor of mechanical engineering at Baghdad University for 12 years.2 Because Mohammed’s lab worked with foreign companies, he increasingly experienced personal threats and threats against his family. In 2010, when Mohammed and Luma felt it was no longer safe to stay in Baghdad, they applied for refugee status in the United States. Although they were resettled only a little more than three years ago, both have made impressive strides in rebuilding their lives: Mohammed now works as a senior microbiologist and Luma as both a lab instructor with Boise State University as well as a medical interpreter to help other Arabic-speaking refugees.
Najah is also a refugee from Iraq. She was resettled in Clarkston, Georgia, from Nineveh, a city near Mosul.3 When she first arrived with her children in 2009, she remembers feeling lost, because she left everything back in Iraq. Like Mohammed and Luma, Najah started out from scratch; unlike the couple, though, she had the disadvantage of knowing “very little English.” But after years living in the United States, she has made strides: Her English has improved, and she has learned to drive. Now, she is managing and teaching artisans at Peace of Thread, a local nonprofit organization that sells bags and purses made by refugee women.
Too often, stories such as these—of the successes and challenges of resettled refugees like Mohammed, Luma, and Najah—are left out of conversations about refugee policies.
Under the Trump administration, the refugee admissions ceiling4 has suffered dramatic cuts. For fiscal year 2019, the administration has set the refugee admissions ceiling at 30,000, the lowest in the nearly 40-year history of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).5 The total number of refugees actually admitted in fiscal year 2018 is even lower: Only about 22,500 refugees were admitted, the lowest number in more than a decade and only half of that year’s targeted 45,000 admissions.6 In short, even though the global need to resettle refugees is expected to rise 17 percent from 2018 to 2019, the United States will not be stepping up to the call—it will be stepping back.7
By undermining the refugee system, the Trump administration is disregarding two fundamental truths about this nation. First, for years, the United States has been a world leader in welcoming people who have fled violence and persecution and are seeking a safe place to call home. Since the USRAP was established in 1980, most administrations until now—regardless of political party—have paid heed to the global need for resettlement, thoughtfully calibrating the yearly admissions ceiling in consultation with Congress to cement the U.S. commitment.8 Second, U.S. communities have long benefited from the arrival of refugees each year.9 Refugees have unique stories and typically humble beginnings. Once they are resettled, they learn the new language, adjust to the different culture, and strive to establish a new life. But in the process, they also enrich and bring cultural vibrancy and diversity to their local communities.
This issue brief gives an overview of refugee arrivals and ceilings in the past two decades. It then presents the results from a nationally representative annual refugee survey, which provide a glimpse into the lives of refugees who arrived in the United States from fiscal years 2011 through 2015. The brief highlights the steps that newly resettled refugees are taking to rebuild their lives from scratch. It also shows how they have made notable advancements in just a few years. By lowering the ceiling on refugee admissions, the United States is breaking the tradition of giving hope, safety, and stability to refugees and is likely to miss out on many highly motivated and resilient individuals in the coming years.