Refugee Resettlement:

Greater Consultation with Community Stakeholders Could Strengthen Program

GAO-12-729: Published: Jul 25, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2012.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Kay E. Brown
(202) 512-7215
brownke@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Voluntary agencies consider various factors when determining where refugees will be placed, but few agencies we visited consulted relevant local stakeholders, which posed challenges for service providers. When deciding how many refugees to place in each community, some voluntary agencies prioritize local agency capacity, such as staffing levels, while others emphasize community capacity, such as housing availability. Although the Immigration and Nationality Act states that it is the intent of Congress for voluntary agencies to work closely with state and local stakeholders when making these decisions, the Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) offers limited guidance on how this should occur. Some communities GAO visited had developed formal processes for obtaining stakeholder input after receiving an overwhelming number of refugees, but most had not, which made it difficult for health care providers and school systems to prepare for and properly serve refugees.

State and local stakeholders reported that refugees bring cultural diversity and stimulate economic development, but serving refugees can stretch local resources, including safety net services. In addition, refugee students can negatively affect performance outcomes for school districts because they often have limited English proficiency. Furthermore, some refugees choose to relocate after their initial placement, and this secondary migration may stretch communities that do not have adequate resources to serve them. In fact, capacity challenges have led some communities to request restrictions or temporary moratoriums on resettlement.

PRM and the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) monitor their refugee assistance programs, but weaknesses in performance measurement may hinder effectiveness. Although refugees are eligible for ORR services for up to 5 years, the outcome data that ORR collects focuses on shorter-term employment outcomes. ORR officials said that their performance measurement reflects the goals outlined by the Immigration and Nationality Act--to help refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. However, the focus on rapid employment makes it difficult to provide services that may increase refugees' incomes, such as helping them obtain credentials to practice their professions in the United States.

Little is known about the extent of refugee integration into U.S. communities, but research offers a framework for measuring and facilitating integration. PRM and ORR both promote refugee integration, but neither agency currently measures integration as a program outcome. While integration is part of ORR's mission, ORR officials said one of the reasons they have not measured it is that there is no clear definition of integration. In addition, research on refugee resettlement does not offer an overall assessment of how well refugees have integrated into the United States. Most of the 13 studies GAO reviewed were limited in scope and focused on particular refugee groups in specific geographic locations. However, these studies identified a variety of indicators that can be used to assess integration as well as factors that can facilitate integration, such as English language acquisition, employment, and social support from other refugees. Despite limited national information, some U.S. communities have developed formal plans for refugee integration.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal year 2011, the United States admitted more than 56,000 refugees under its refugee resettlement program. Upon entry, a network of private, nonprofit voluntary agencies (voluntary agencies) selects the communities where refugees will live. The Department of State's PRM and the Department of Health and Human Services' ORR provide funding to help refugees settle in their communities and obtain employment and monitor implementation of the program. Congress has begun to reexamine the refugee resettlement program, and GAO was asked to examine (1) the factors resettlement agencies consider when determining where refugees are initially placed; (2) the effects refugees have on their communities; (3) how federal agencies ensure program effectiveness and integrity; and (4) what is known about the integration of refugees. GAO reviewed agency guidance, monitoring protocols, reports, and studies; conducted a literature review; reviewed and analyzed relevant federal and state laws and regulations; and met with federal and state officials, voluntary agency staff, and local stakeholders in eight selected communities.

What GAO Recommends

GAO makes several recommendations to the Secretaries of State and Health and Human Services to improve refugee assistance programs in the United States. HHS and State generally concurred with the recommendations and each identified efforts they have under way or plan to undertake to address them.

For more information, contact Kay Brown at (202) 512-7215 or brownke@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To assist communities in providing services to secondary migrants, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should consider additional ways to increase the responsiveness of the grants designed for this purpose. This could include asking states to report secondary migration data more often than once a year, allowing resubmission of secondary migration data from states that was rejected because it did not match ORR's database, creating a process for counting migrants who received services in more than one state, and establishing an emergency grant that could be used to more quickly identify and assist communities that are struggling to serve high levels of secondary migrants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation, noting that it already provides Supplemental Services grants, which provide short-term assistance to areas that are affected by increased numbers of new arrivals or secondary migrants. HHS also raised concerns that an increase in the frequency of data collection would significantly increase the reporting burden without a mandatory need for the data. HHS stated that noted it has a process for notifying states of technical problems with population data submitted and allowing them to make corrections. GAO recognizes these efforts, however, we believe that: (1) the Supplemental Services grants can be improved to be more responsive; (2) more up-to-date population data can help HHS respond more quickly to communities experiencing high levels of secondary migration; and (3) improvements can be made to the process for correcting population data.

    Recommendation: To give service providers more flexibility to serve refugees with different needs and to create incentives to focus on longer term goals, including integration, independence from any government services, and career advancement, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should examine ORR’s performance measures in light of its goals and determine whether changes are needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To assist communities in providing services to secondary migrants, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should consider additional ways to increase the responsiveness of the grants designed for this purpose. This could include asking states to report secondary migration data more often than once a year, allowing resubmission of secondary migration data from states that was rejected because it did not match ORR’s database, creating a process for counting migrants who received services in more than one state, and establishing an emergency grant that could be used to more quickly identify and assist communities that are struggling to serve high levels of secondary migrants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that state and local stakeholders have the opportunity to provide input on the number of refugees resettled in their communities, the Secretaries of State and of Health and Human Services should collect and disseminate best practices related to refugee placement decisions, specifically on working with community stakeholders, as well as other promising practices from communities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Open

    Comments: HHS supports this recommendation, while noting that State and nonprofit community-based and faith-based organizations have traditionally taken the lead on resettling refugees. HHS conducted quarterly placement meetings, which include resettlement agencies and refugee coordinators. These meetings may be helpful, however, GAO continues to believe that HHS can also implement this recommendation by disseminating best practices and program strengths that it documents through its monitoring of states and service providers.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that state and local stakeholders have the opportunity to provide input on the number of refugees resettled in their communities, the Secretaries of State and of Health and Human Services should collect and disseminate best practices related to refugee placement decisions, specifically on working with community stakeholders, as well as other promising practices from communities.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of State commented that it will develop and implement a mechanism for collecting and sharing best practices, with special attention to the role stakeholders play in successful refugee resettlement.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that state and local stakeholders have the opportunity to provide input on the number of refugees resettled in their communities, the Secretary of State should provide additional guidance to resettlement agencies and state coordinators on how to consult with local stakeholders prior to making placement decisions, including with whom to consult and what should be discussed during the consultations.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of State commented that it will develop and provide new guidance to resettlement agencies that includes the range of stakeholders to engage, topics to discuss, and requirements for reporting the outcome of these consultations. Further, the agency will develop and evaluate this additional guidance in collaboration with resettlement agencies and with input from state refugee coordinators, state refugee health coordinators, state and local governments, and local service providers.

    Recommendation: To give service providers more flexibility to serve refugees with different needs and to create incentives to focus on longer term goals, including integration, independence from any government services, and career advancement, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should examine ORR's performance measures in light of its goals and determine whether changes are needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Open

    Comments: HHS stated that it will consider modifying its performance measures and will also continue to assess the usefulness of data elements collected through required reporting to ensure that the program addresses both self-sufficiency and integration. For example, it has already begun collecting more information about health through its annual survey of refugees and expanded the number of reporting elements pertaining to health in its program performance reporting form. In addition, it is developing approaches to increase the overall participation rates in its annual survey.

    Aug 28, 2014

    Jul 24, 2014

    Jul 21, 2014

    Jul 9, 2014

    Jul 8, 2014

    Jun 26, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here