What are the odds? Finding refuge in the United States

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Out of 42,705 applications for refugee status in 2003, 25,309 were accepted, including James Tour and Nyanit Malual, the Sudanese-American couple featured in the accompanying profile.

The cap that fiscal year was 70,000.

RELATED STORY ⇒ Behind the success of a Sudanese couple: ‘Sometimes you have to prove yourself.’

What’s the difference between refugee status and asylum-seeker status?

“Refugees,” under the Refugee Act of 1980, are any people who’ve been persecuted or fear persecution for their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinions. 

James Tour and Nyanit Malual of Manchester.

To seek Refugee Status applicants must apply from outside the United States. Usually, applicants have already left their home countries – perhaps because of war, violence, or economic hardship. The waiting time for those accepted by the United States is now averaging more than two years. Applicants typically reside in a third country during that time.  James Tour and Nyanit Malual, subjects of this profile story, applied for refugee status from Egypt after they left Sudan.

To seek Asylum Status, applicants must be physically present in the United States or at a port of entry to the U.S. when they apply.  During the Covid pandemic, the U.S. invoked Title 42, a section of the 1994 U.S. Code, that denies entry to persons who pose a risk of spreading a communicable disease.  U.S. ports of entry were closed and remain closed to asylum-seekers although the Biden Administration has allowed some exceptions. 

Who determines the number of refugee status admissions allowed annually?

The President of the United States. An annual ceiling on number of refugees is set by the President in consultation with Congress.  There is no ceiling on the number of asylum-seekers.  

President Biden increased the cap for the fiscal year 2021 from 15,000 to 62,500,but only 11,411 refugees were resettled, about 18 per cent of the cap, the lowest percentage resettled since the 1980 Refugee Act was passed.

What is the refugee admission limit for fiscal year 2022?

125,000.  However,  for several reasons, including the ongoing Covid pandemic, refugee resettlements are unlikely to reach the cap. Also,134 resettlement sites have been closed since 2017 for lack of funding. In addition, the need to assist Afghan evacuees and Ukrainian refugees has out-paced staffing at the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).   

Although historically the U.S. has resettled more refugees than any other country, its program has not kept up with the increase of global refugees, up more than 50 percent over the past five years. There were more than 26 million as of fiscal year 2020. Less than 1 percent of the total number of displaced people in the world has been resettled to the 37 primary resettlement countries (including the U.S.) each year, according to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. 


  • In FY 2016, the U.S. admitted nearly 85,000 refugees, a number that declined to fewer than 54,000 refugees in FY 2017, after President Trump reduced the cap/ceiling on refugee admissions via executive order.
  • For FY 2018, refugee admission cap reduced to 45,000;
    FY 2019, admissions reduced to 30,000; 
    FY 2020, cap cut to 18,000.
    However, the cap represents the maximum number of refugees that may be resettled in a year and the Trump administration resettled only 11,814 people in FY 2020, leaving 7,000 slots unfilled.
  • While President Biden increased the FY 2021 cap from the proposed 15,000 to 62,500 in May 2021 and set the FY 2022 cap at 125,000, refugee resettlement infrastructure remains depleted and the administration has struggled to reach these targets in terms of actual refugees resettled. 



About this Author


Julie Zimmer

Julie Zimmer is an associate of the New Hampshire Immigrant Rights Network and a former communications instructor at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. Anderson and Zimmer live in Peterborough.