Under U.S. law, all refugees—whether they arrive through the refugee resettlement program or have been granted asylum—are entitled to certain public benefits and services to help them integrate. Though there have been numerous studies that focus on refugee resettlement and integration, little comparable research has been done on asylee. We know that the vast majority of asylees do not access benefits and services for which they are eligible. Is this because they have difficulty doing so or because the services don’t meet their needs? How does a lack of benefits impact asylee integration?
From late May to early August 2021, Refugees International surveyed asylees about their ability to successfully integrate in three locations with high levels of asylees per capita: Colorado; the greater Washington, DC area; and Houston, Texas. The study used stratified sampling to survey adults who were granted asylum within the last seven years, as well as individuals who were different ages, nationalities, and genders. A total of 96 individuals began the survey, and 84 completed it entirely. Though they hailed from 19 different countries, 39.3 percent of respondents were from Venezuela, 8.3 percent were from Cuba, and 8.3 percent from Honduras.
The survey helped to identify insights on critical barriers to integration for asylees. Elimination of these barriers would go a long way to ensuring asylees are not “second -class” refugees.
Access to Asylum
Reflecting overall national trends, on average, asylees in the survey who applied for asylum defensively waited more than a year longer to be granted asylum than asylees who applied affirmatively. The survey also indicated that higher levels of gaining asylum via the defensive route correlated moderately with being younger.
While younger asylees in the survey reported having better English skills and more confidence about naturalizing, they reported difficultly affording housing. More than 40 percent of survey respondents do not agree that their “current housing meets their families’ and their needs.” Among respondents, higher levels of living in affordable housing correlated with higher levels of having received financial help to secure housing. It is important to note that only individuals in the Houston area reported receiving financial assistance to secure housing. In the DC-area, 75 percent of respondents reported having to share housing to afford it.
Respondents who reported feeling that their skills match their job reported that it was easier to find a job. Additionally, those who said their skills match their jobs reported feeling their jobs better met the needs of their families. These correlations suggest that matching asylees with jobs that meet their skills is as important as job training.
Access to Information about Services
The survey made clear that many asylees lacked information about available services that would help them find employment, housing, health care, food assistance, and more. Approximately 16.67 percent of respondents reported never receiving information about assistance programs or the benefits for which they are eligible. Those participants who moved less reported knowing legal and service providers in their community more.
Legal Assistance and Reunification
Only about 50 percent of respondents reported feeling that it would be easy to get legal help in the United States or understood the family reunification process, both important to successful integration. The survey also found that many asylees understand the importance of adjusting their status but do not know how to or do not feel confident about taking their citizenship exam.
Refugee Assistance Programs
Of those surveyed, 42 percent said they do not know where to seek mental healthcare, suggesting that they do not have access to mental health providers. Over 30 percent of respondents did not receive Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) or Refugee Medical Screening (RMS). RMA provides short-term medical assistance to newly arriving refugees and other eligible populations, such as asylees, as well as funds that enable these populations to complete a RMS, which facilitates early health interventions. The importance of healthcare assistance to surveyed asylees comes out clearly in open ended responses such as “health care in the United States is quite expensive”. A little over half of survey respondents indicated that they received Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) (53.6 percent), which is financial support for refugees and asylees with limited resources. Of those, only 30 percent of respondents stated that RCA was sufficient for their needs. This suggests that most of them needed greater financial assistance for successful integration.
The survey data suggests several policy recommendations to better facilitate asylee integration.
- The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) should give a “Know your Benefits” 1-pager to asylees to prevent gaps in information on eligibility and access to services.
- An improved, comprehensive case management system for asylees, similar to that available for resettled refugees, should be established to help asylees access services and ensure continuity of care when an asylee moves.
- The capacity of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) program should be increased to ensure that younger asylees who arrive as unaccompanied minors receive the benefits available to those in the URM program, including financial support, education and career support, case management, and living skills training, which would help minors transition to adulthood and secure more stable housing.
- Asylees should be supported with additional pathways to transfer their degrees and certifications so that they can work in better jobs that fit their skills.
- Refugee assistance programs, such as RMA, RMS, and RCA, should be equitably distributed to all eligible populations to include asylees and both the amount of RCA funds and the length of time they can be accessed should be increased.
- Additional legal services for asylees should be available to facilitate naturalization and the use of legal pathways to bring over family.
A biennial survey of asylees would provide much needed consistent and reliable data on asylee access to services. Further research should also be done on asylee needs and policies in cities like Houston and other places with high asylee populations, such as Florida, to understand trends and best practices. While this survey offers limited comparisons, a larger study should assess whether policies are having a disparate impact on asylees of different races or nationalities.
Aaron Escajeda was a domestic policy intern at Refugees International.
Refugees International would like to thank the Maryland and Texas Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) coordinators, organizations, law clinics, attorneys, and other service providers who helped identify survey participants. Refugees International would also like to thank the University of Texas at Austin’s Institutional Review Board for reviewing and approving the survey.
PHOTO BANNER CAPTION: Migrants from Guatemala who are seeking asylum rest in a shelter on May 15, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images.