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Refugee Resettlement: Greater Consultation with Community Stakeholders Could Strengthen Program

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

Skip to Recommendations


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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State 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.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of State has added stronger requirements for grant funding, including the requirement to submit evidence of coordination and consultation with, at minimum, community-based organizations and state and local public agencies providing services to refugees. Potential grantees must also submit evidence of community support for local affiliates and for the refugee program. The new requirements also include documented multi-directional communication flow for the distribution of information that affects placement in local communities. Affiliate(s) responsible for refugee placement are required to conduct quarterly consultations with state and local government officials concerning the distribution of refugees before their placement. The Department of State has also provided guidance on the content of the consultations, stating that consultations should include year-to-date arrivals and projections through the end of the current federal fiscal year compared to approved placement numbers; a presentation of characteristics of arriving refugee populations including nationality, ethnicity, average family size and composition, language and education background, and medical conditions; and a discussion of the participant stakeholders? abilities to adequately receive and serve the actual and projected caseload. Issues that might prevent adequate resettlement should be discussed. Affiliates should use these quarterly meetings as an opportunity to better understand any challenges that may result from placement decisions.
Department of State 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.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of State established a web page on its Refugee Processing Center website, which is available to the public, to collect and post "successful models of community consultation" paying special attention to the role stakeholders play in successful refugee resettlement.
Department of Health and Human Services 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.
Closed – Implemented
In fiscal year 2013, the Office of Refugee Resettlement(ORR) entered an agreement with a technical assistance provider, Welcoming America,to assist resettlement agencies with outreach to communities. The provider has set up a website where it shares resources, including best practices and toolkits to help resettlement agencies with outreach. It has conducted webinars, provided online curriculum for outreach, and conducted learning circles among a number of stakeholders. This has included webinars on working with local governments to welcome refugees.
Department of Health and Human Services 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.
Closed – Implemented
In fiscal year 2014, HHS discontinued the use of supplemental service grants for short-term assistance to areas affected by increased numbers of new arrivals or secondary migrants. At the same time, HHS expanded its Preferred Communities grant, providing agencies more flexibility to immediately address emerging needs of the newly arriving and the secondary migrant refugee population through case management services to clients in targeted locations. The grant allows programs to respond to unanticipated arrivals, including secondary migrants. Grantees may enter into Memorandums of Understanding with local service providers in areas that do not have existing resettlement services to assist with refugees moving into those areas. HHS says that it has streamlined the timelines for data submission on secondary migration and worked with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that all source data is made available for verification. In response to the suggestion to create a process for counting migrants who received services in more than one state, this would not be feasible given the in and out migration dates of secondary migrants are not verifiable.
Department of Health and Human Services 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.
Closed – Not Implemented
HHS initially stated that it would consider modifying its performance measures and would also continue to assess the usefulness of data elements collected through required reporting. However, in 2016, HHS noted that the program has faced a significant increase in the number of new arrivals and the number of more at-risk cases. HHS also noted that the program has been flat funded for the past decade, and there has been pressure on local service providers to shift priority to new arrivals to ensure the basic level of service. As a result, HHS is not currently focused on longer term goals. HSS said that it is working with colleagues at the ACF Office of Planning Research and Evaluation and the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation to refine and update its annual refugee survey to be responsive to the changing nature of resettlement in the 21st century, and also to develop a broader refugee research agenda, including how refugee integration is defined and how HHS and others can measure these outcomes more effectively.

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