Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2018, 13:56 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2008 - United States

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - United States, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 17 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

USA figures


The United States accepted 48,300 refugees for resettlement and granted asylum to 23,000. Almost 93,400 asylum seekers had claims pending at the end of the year.

Despite the Administration's suggestion that it could process 7,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement, and resettle more than 3,000 Iraqis in the United States, by September (the end of the fiscal year) only 1,600 arrived out of more than 10,000 referred by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). From October 2007 to March 2008, the United States resettled another 2,600 Iraqis. Its goal for the fiscal year (October 1, 2007 through September 30, 2008) is 12,000.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

The U.S. Coast Guard returned nearly 1,600 Haitians and more than 3,200 Cubans it intercepted at sea as they tried to reach Florida. The United States maintained a policy of interdicting Cubans and Haitians on the high seas and returning them to their country of nationality unless it determined any were refugees. Authorities advised Cubans, but not Haitians, of their right to seek asylum. The only way for Haitians to claim asylum was to shout out their fear of return to Haiti, and even this did not always work. The Coast Guard transferred those it found to have a credible fear of return to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Department of Homeland Security officers interviewed them. In all, the Coast Guard interdicted 6,400 foreign nationals at sea.

In April, the United States announced plans to accept 200 asylum seekers per year from Australia's offshore detention centers and to send 200 Cubans and Haitians from Guantanamo to Australia yearly. In February 2008, the new Labor Government in Australia announced that the deal was defunct.

The United States was not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees but was to the 1967 Protocol. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prohibited refoulement and established procedures for admitting refugees and granting asylum. The amendments to the INA in the 2001 Patriot Act and the 2005 Real ID Act prevented the admission of many refugees, barring from resettlement or asylum any who gave "material support" in any form (including money, shelter, food, water, or clothing) to any organization the law deemed terrorist, even if it was under duress. According to the amendments, any "group of two or more individuals, whether organized or not, which engages in, or has a subgroup that engages in" terrorist activity qualified as a terrorist organization. The law did not limit its definition of "terrorist activity" to targeting civilians for political violence but included any unlawful act using any "weapon or dangerous device (other than for mere personal monetary gain) ... to cause substantial damage to property."

This definition barred even supporters of pro-democracy rebel groups, such as the Karen National Union of Myanmar, the Hmong of Laos, and the Montagnards of Vietnam, who fought alongside U.S. forces in the 1960s and 1970s. In January, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security exercised their discretion to exempt persons who were not public safety or national security risks to the United States, issuing waivers for supporters of several Myanmarese groups, the Cuban Alzados, and the Tibetan Mustangs. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also pledged to seek further discretionary exemption authority from Congress. The Department of Homeland Security also announced a duress exception for those compelled to aid groups that met the broadest definition of terrorist, but not for similar victims of designated groups, such as Hezbullah or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

By September, the various waivers allowed the resettlement of more than 3,000 refugees that material support concerns would have blocked. Most were Myanmarese who had provided support to groups fighting the government there, though more than 200 supporters of the Cuban Alzados received waivers, as did more than 100 refugees from Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had given material support to terrorist groups under duress.

Under the INA, applicants were ineligible for asylum and refugees were deportable if they committed "aggravated felonies," including any act of theft or violence punishable by a year or more in prison, whether or not they had been sentenced. They could apply for withholding of removal if persecution upon return was more likely than not, but were ineligible for this if a court had sentenced them to five years imprisonment or more. In such cases, their only avenue for relief was an application under the Convention against Torture.

Asylum seekers making claims to avoid deportation made their cases before immigration judges. They had the right to appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and subsequently to federal courts. They could also retain counsel at their own expense, but the cost was prohibitive for many. Judges granted asylum at widely disparate rates. In August, the Transitional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University released a study showing that, between 2001 and 2006, two judges in the New York office granted more than 90 percent of asylum applications while another denied more than 90 percent.

Detention/Access to Courts

The United States held up to 3,000 refugees/asylum seekers in detention on any given day during the year. During the year, it detained approximately 7,000 children, the greatest number ever. Immigration officials detained asylum seekers at ports of entry for not having valid documents and detained some with proper documents if they intended to seek protection immediately. All told, as many as 27,000 foreigners were in immigration detention on any given day during the year.

Investigations by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 62 foreign nationals had died in immigration detention between 2004 and mid-2007. Many had health problems, but at least seven were suicides. The ACLU reported "severe and widespread problems with access to chronic and emergency medical care," including extraction-only dental care. Mental health care was also poor. For example, in one Virginia county jail, the standard procedure was to place mentally ill detainees having breakdowns in solitary confinement. The Seneca County Jail, near Toledo, Ohio, was routinely over capacity (in April it held 187 in a facility authorized for 125), did not provide detainees telephone access for legal aid or proper hygiene, and treated all medical problems with aspirin.

In January, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of detainees in the San Diego Correctional Facility, where certain sections were more than 50 percent over their designed capacity, some detainees slept three to a cell, and others lived in common areas. In March, detainees in the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia went on a two-day hunger strike to protest mistreatment and poor diet. The Salvadoran consulate in Georgia, which interviewed 40 detainees, reported that authorities assaulted one detainee for refusing to eat. One detainee, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS, reported it took two to four days to get medical attention in the facility.

In a small number of cases, authorities used alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring bracelets, which allowed asylum seekers to live in communities under supervision.

Refugees, asylees, and asylum seekers received documents attesting to their legal status in the country.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Refugees and non-detained asylum seekers could travel freely within the United States. Asylum seekers had to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of changes in their address, and, if they were under supervised release, had to check in regularly with ICE. Authorities outfitted some asylum seekers with electronic monitoring bracelets to track closely their whereabouts.

Refugees and asylees could apply for international travel documents. However, backlogs in processing made it difficult for them to travel for work or to sudden events such as funerals.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Refugees and asylees could work legally, but the Government ceased issuing permits on arrival to refugees it had admitted for resettlement. Refugees received the work permits by mail and sometimes had to wait longer than the official limit of 30 days.

Asylees obtained work permits automatically when the Government granted their cases, but asylum seekers had to wait 180 days after filing their asylum application before they could apply for a work permit. Many refugees and asylees worked in the service industry because they could not prove they were qualified for the professions they had practiced in their home countries.

Refugees, asylees, and asylum seekers with work permits had the full protection of labor laws.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provided two year work permits for asylees. Refugees and asylees could open bank accounts, own property, and run businesses.

Public Relief and Education

Refugees had access to education on par with nationals. Undocumented asylum seekers had virtually no access to public assistance, however, apart from public education and emergency medical services.

The United States aided refugees for eight months after arrival and asylees for the same period after the grant of asylum. Both refugees and asylees were eligible for public assistance for up to five years. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act limited the eligibility for Social Security income to seven years for non-naturalized refugees, asylees, and Cuban or Haitian entrants who arrived after 1996. An estimated 4,500 refugees lost benefits in 2007, bringing the total to nearly 16,500.

Language barriers prevented many elderly refugees from passing naturalization exams, but the 1951 Convention did not require naturalization for public relief in any event. The law prevented relief agencies from providing services to undocumented immigrants.

USCRI Reports

  • IRSA-USCR Appoints Gregory Chen as Director of Policy Analysis and Research (Press Releases)
  • USCR Welcomes U.S. Steps Aimed at Freeing (Press Releases)
  • IRSA Urges Enactment of SSI Extension for Disabled and Elderly Refugees Act (Press Releases)
  • USCR Urges the President to Protect Life-Saving Refugee Assistance Funds (Press Releases)
  • World Refugee Survey 2002: Number of World's Uprooted Grows (Press Releases)
  • Americas: Amid Post-9/11 Security Concerns, U.S. Refugee Admissions at Record Low; In Colombia, Conflict and Political Violence Uproot Another 500,000 People (Press Releases)
  • Release of World Refugee Survey 2004 – warehousing issue (Press Releases)
  • USCRI Applauds Comprehensive Immigration Reform Urges White House Support (Press Releases)
  • USCR Lauds Introduction of Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill (Press Releases)
  • Canadian and U.S. Policies Put Asylum Seekers at Risk (Press Releases)
  • The Detention of Asylum Seekers Not The Way to Go (Press Releases)
  • USCR calls for the protection of Haitian refugees fleeing violence (Press Releases)
  • Will Secretary Rice Help Extend Freedom to the World's Refugees? (Press Releases)
  • USCRI Welcomes President Bush's Proposed Budget for Refugees (Press Releases)
  • REAL ID Act Violates American Principles (Press Releases)
  • Iraqi Refugee Admissions Resume, But U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Remains in Disarray (Press Releases)
  • President Bush's Immigration Proposal is Promising (Press Releases)
  • USCR Acutely Concerned Regarding U.S. Government Decision to Bar Admission of Iraqi Refugees (Press Releases)
  • Two New Policy Analysts Join U.S. Committee for Refugees (Press Releases)
  • National Security and Immigrant Rights (Press Releases)
  • USCR Says President's FY 04 Refugee Admissions Goal Commendable, But Will Only Truly Help Refugees if Administration Officials Carry It Out (Press Releases)

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