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Afghan and Iraqi Special Immigrants: More Information on Their Resettlement Outcomes Would Be Beneficial

GAO-18-107 Published: Feb 20, 2018. Publicly Released: Mar 22, 2018.
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What GAO Found

Since fiscal year 2011, about 13,000 Afghan and Iraqi nationals (excluding family members) have resettled in the United States under special immigrant visas (SIV), but limited data on their outcomes are available from the Department of State (State) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). State collects data on SIV holders' resettlement outcomes once—90 days after they arrive. GAO's analysis of State's data from October 2010 through December 2016 showed that the majority of principal SIV holders—those who worked for the U.S. government—were unemployed at 90 days, including those reporting high levels of education and spoken English. Separately, HHS collects data on about one-third of resettled SIV holders (those in one HHS grant program). According to HHS's fiscal year 2016 data (the only year available), most of these SIV holders were employed and not receiving cash assistance 6 months after arrival; however, these data are not representative of all SIV holders. GAO did not identify any outcome data for SIV holders beyond 6 months after arrival. HHS annually surveys refugees up to 5 years after arrival, but does not do so for SIV holders. However, it has occasionally used its survey of refugees to analyze selected groups at no additional reported cost. Such analysis could provide valuable information on whether SIV holders have achieved longer-term assimilation, consistent with HHS' mission and program goals.

Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Holders Who Were Unemployed 90 Days After Arrival, October 2010-December 2016

Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Holders Who Were Unemployed 90 Days After Arrival, October 2010-December 2016

Stakeholders GAO interviewed reported several resettlement challenges, including capacity issues in handling large numbers of SIV holders, difficulties finding skilled employment, and SIV holders' high expectations. Officials from local resettlement agencies in Northern Virginia reported capacity challenges for their agencies and the community due to the large increase of SIV holders. In almost all of GAO's focus groups with principal SIV holders, participants expressed frustration at the need to take low-skilled jobs because they expected that their education and prior work experience would lead to skilled work.

State and HHS have taken steps to address some resettlement challenges. For example, in 2017 State placed restrictions on where SIV holders could resettle and HHS announced a new grant to support career development programs for SIV holders, refugees, and others. In addition, State provides information to prospective SIV holders about resettlement. However, the information is general, and lacks detail on key issues such as housing affordability, employment, and available government assistance. Providing such specifics could lead to more informed decisions by SIV holders on where to resettle and help them more quickly adapt to potential challenges once in the United States.

Why GAO Did This Study

Certain Afghan or Iraqi nationals who worked for the U.S. government and may have experienced serious threats due to this work may qualify for an SIV. An SIV allows them and eligible family members to resettle in the United States, and since 2008 over 60,000 SIV holders (principal holder and family members) have done so. Upon arrival, they are eligible for resettlement assistance from State and HHS. GAO was asked to review SIV holders' resettlement outcomes and challenges. This report examines (1) available data on SIV holders' employment and other outcomes, (2) challenges affecting their resettlement, and (3) federal efforts to help address challenges. GAO analyzed the most recent federal data (State: 2010-2016; and HHS: 2016) on SIV holders' outcomes; interviewed officials from nine national resettlement agencies; and visited three states (CA, TX, and VA) where over half of SIV holders resettled. In these states, GAO interviewed the states' refugee coordinators and, for two local areas with relatively high levels of SIV resettlement, interviewed local resettlement agency officials and conducted focus groups with SIV holders. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws and policies and interviewed federal officials.


GAO recommends that 1) HHS consider including SIV holders in its annual survey on refugees' longer-term outcomes, and that 2) State provide more detailed information on key issues to prospective SIV holders. Both agencies agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Refugee Resettlement The Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) should consider including SIV holders in its Annual Survey of Refugees. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
ORR took steps to consider including SIV holders in its Annual Survey of Refugees (ASR), but ultimately determined that this was not feasible due to cost and survey validity issues. In 2018, ORR contracted for a technical study looking at options to improve the ASR, including exploring costs and technical issues associated with increasing the sample size and adding questions to allow for ORR to include other humanitarian migrants, such as SIV holders. The study, which was completed in May 2018, estimated doing such would increase the cost of the ASR by over a third and double the time needed to administer the survey. The study also noted that costs would be higher and other technical issues could arise if survey conditions- such as demographic characteristics, propensities to participate, and availability of contact information-were dissimilar between the newly-added populations and refugees. ORR determined that a number of factors distinguish SIV holders from refugee populations, including their prior education experiences, English-language proficiency, and pre-arrival experiences. ORR concluded that, in addition to prohibitive cost issues, the inclusion of SIV holders could potentially introduce bias to the overall survey results and undermine the scientific rigor of the ASR. Instead of including SIV holders in its ASR, ORR plans to expand its program administrative data to better understand self-sufficiency and integration outcomes for SIV holders and other ORR-eligible populations. Specifically, for all ORR-eligible populations who receive employment related services funded by ORR's Refugee Support Services, ORR will require administering agencies to collect additional client-level information, such as on initial assessments, referrals for services, and follow-up assessments, for all individuals within the family during the first year of arrival to the United States. ORR published a notice of these new data collection requirements in the Federal Register in July 2020 and plans to commence data collection after approval from the Office of Management and Budget.
Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration The Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) should identify and implement additional ways to deliver information to prospective SIV holders about resettlement to assist with adjustment and expectations after arrival in the United States, including providing more detailed or in-depth information on key issues. PRM, working with Consular Affairs as needed, should also identify and address potential gaps in disseminating relevant information to SIV holders, such as at embassies. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In order to improve information accuracy and access for prospective and current SIV holders overseas and in the United States, PRM has taken several actions. It has enhanced its online resources and introduced new mobile resources through its U.S. Cultural Orientation Technical Assistance Provider, CORE. CORE's online cultural orientation website ( highlights information on the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program on a number of cultural orientation topics and conveys information through different formats and different languages in order to reach people of varying levels of literacy. According to PRM officials, in 2018, CORE added new content to this website on various topics, including employment, money management, health, and education; and completed Dari translations of the website's content. Also, in March 2018, CORE launched an accompanying mobile app, Settle In, in which prospective or current SIV holders can learn about various pre- and post-arrival cultural orientation topics and access information through short videos or interactive lessons. Further, to increase awareness of available informational resources, starting in January 2018, PRM's Refugee Processing Center has included links to CORE's website in every e-mail communication with SIV holders. In February 2019, PRM also added a link to the website in its other informational documents for SIVs, such as FAQs, including the translated versions of these documents. PRM officials also confirmed with Consular Affairs that the Welcome to the United States guidebooks are being distributed to prospective SIV holders in Embassies Kabul and Baghdad.

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