The United States hosted about 244,200 refugees and asylum seekers at year-end 2003. The following countries were the largest sources: Cuba, 26,500; Haiti 23,800; Liberia 19,800; Colombia 19,400, Mexico 16,900, China 15,600, Guatemala 10,200; Indonesia 7,600; Ukraine 5,900; and El Salvador, 4,500. The total includes resettled refugees, asylees, asylum seekers with cases pending, and about 23,000 people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) based on persecution and violence in their home countries – Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan. About 15,000 of those with TPS were from Liberia.
During the year the United States forcibly returned an estimated 3,600 asylum seekers, 2,000 from Haiti and 1,600 from Cuba intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Also, 340 people from the United States had asylum applications filed in Canada.
The numbers of refugees hosted fell precipitously from the 638,000 in 2002, due to restrictive policies and a technical adjustment in the counting of certain long-pending asylum applications (see below).
The United States admitted 28,400 refugees from overseas in 2003, a fraction of the 70,000 authorized and the 66,000 average for the previous five years (1997-2002). Another 29,000 won asylum, a decrease of about 5,000 from the year before. About 136,500 had asylum applications pending at year's end, a decrease from the year before. In addition, asylum officers and courts denied greater numbers of applications. For example, immigration courts denied claims in 22,100 cases, nearly 4,000 more rejections than in 2002.
The United States had a backlog of some 261,000 asylum applications at the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Service (USCIS) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with 212,000 from El Salvador and Guatemala (an application can include more than one person). Since 1997, the government has suspended asylum interviews with Salvadorans and Guatemalans covered by the landmark legal ruling, known as the ABC settlement. USCIS estimated that the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 (NACARA) covered most of these people, some 204,000 applications (124,200 from El Salvador and 79,800 from Guatemala). The service said it granted permanent residence to about 96% of the nearly 80,000 NACARA cases it reviewed so far. Those denied can still pursue their pending asylum claim, as agreed in the ABC settlement. The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) considered that they have a durable solution and did not count them among the U.S. total, a change from past Surveys.
The vast majority of the aforementioned Ukrainians and Liberians came through the resettlement program. In contrast, the majority of the other large national groups traveled to the United States and applied for asylum. The approximately 5,500 Chinese (15,600 total) and 3,800 Colombians (19,400 total) were the largest groups of asylees, but most of the Chinese and Colombians were still asylum seekers awaiting a determination on their status. Many thousands more Colombians fled the war in their country, despite the fact the United States refused to grant them TPS, and many were discouraged from applying for asylum by the difficulty of winning their asylum cases. Statistics on this population are elusive, but USCR estimated that at least 150,000 are people living in a refugee-like situation (see Table 12). A large number of Mexicans applied for asylum and many were pending before the immigration courts. Legal technicalities led many to apply for asylum in order to seek other relief in immigration courts.
Haitians continued to flee unrest in their country and seek refuge in the United States, despite the United States' forcible return of thousands and new policies detaining many Haitian asylum seekers (see Americas Regional Summary). In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted and returned without adequate screening some 2,000 Haitians and 1,600 Cubans, despite political repression in both countries and serious unrest in Haiti. Haitians were subject to the so-called "shout" test where they had to scream out their fear of persecution in the vessel, or be summarily returned to Haiti. Despite the forcible returns, some 26,500 Cubans were refugees or asylum seekers, including 25,300 who were paroled into the country and eligible for permanent residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The United States expanded its detention of asylum seekers and nationality-based restrictions on immigrants (see Americas Regional Summary for further details). DHS has wide discretion in the detention of asylum seekers and ignored Congress' intention that they begin to parole asylum seekers through supervised release to private volunteer agencies. Instead DHS placed electronic ankle bracelets on some individuals it released under strict conditions. Increasingly it detained people who won asylum or other relief from Immigration Judges where DHS appealed. At removal hearings where they were denied asylum, DHS began to detain asylum seekers not previously detained, even though they are entitled to appeal, and some prevail.
The backlog of asylees seeking permanent residence grew to nearly 150,000, translating into an estimated 15-year wait. The backlog of pending asylum applications diminished, due in part to a more than 30 percent increase in denials and a dramatic drop in the number of people who managed to travel to the United States and file asylum claims (see above).