IRAP Refugee Resettlement

IRAP- The International Refugee Assistance Project

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) is a nonprofit organization that provides legal aid for refugees. IRAP believes that everyone should have a safe place to live and a safe way to get there. Through strategic litigation and systemic advocacy, IRAP works to protect and expand the US refugee admissions program to ensure that vulnerable refugees can continue to reach safety in the United States.

Latina Republic interviewed Lacy Broemel, Policy Analyst with IRAP. In our conversation, Broemel updates us on the resettlement process and shares recommendations to improve the refugee program so it can serve those it was designed to assist.

Latina Republic: Can you provide us with a step-by-step overview of the resettlement process?  

Lacy Broemel: Just to give you a little more information about IRAP, we are a legal services organization. So, we provide legal aid for displaced people who are going through the resettlement process, attempting to reunite with family, seeking asylum, or going through a different pathway to seek safety.

The refugee resettlement process to the United States starts when a person flees their country and registers with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR then refers them to the United States or to other countries that do resettlement as well. After UNHCR refers refugees to the US, they undergo a really arduous and emotionally taxing process that takes a long time. The process used to take an average of two years and now it’s much, much longer.


IRAP client and attorney. Credit: IRAP.


After a refugee is referred to the US, they undergo in-person interviews with officers from the Department of Homeland security and undergo security vetting that can take a long time and is often overly burdensome.

After someone  finally gets through these checks, which include medical checks, and is approved for resettlement to the United States, they are connected with a Resettlement Agency in the US. The US government has contracts with nine refugee resettlement agencies or RAs. And a refugee is “assured” to one of those RAs.

Those RAs work among themselves to decide where that individual will be resettled in the United States, which is based on a variety of factors. 

It could be based on circumstances like, “does somebody have family that’s already in a certain city?” “Does this person have specific medical needs that require a great hospital that could address that in a certain city?” Once a refugee  finds out where they’re going to be resettled,  the resettlement agency is responsible for ensuring the person has a furnished apartment, initial food, and other critical items. 

The resettlement agency has case managers who are at the airport and greet each individual, take them to their house, and give them a quick briefing about their home and new city once they arrive and then work with them as they settle in over the next several months. 

Those first 30 to 90 days after arrival are the most intensive though in terms of case management. The goal for the resettlement program in the United States as laid out in the Refugee Act of 1980 is integration and self-sufficiency. So that means that, very quickly, individuals are expected to learn English, if they don’t know it already, in order to get a job. Oftentimes refugees are unfortunately required to get jobs outside of their field of expertise. For example, if they were a doctor or had some sort of other expertise in their home country, sometimes that doesn’t transfer over. But since the goal is to be self-sufficient, they have to get a job very quickly. It can be a very daunting, extremely pressurized and often traumatic experience. 

In terms of US government responsibility over resettlement after a refugee arrives,  in the Department of State, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration or PRM provides the funding to fund the first 30 to 90 days through a contract with the resettlement agencies. And then after that, the funding and services come through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

Latina Republic: Okay, great. So, what are the main issues you see affecting refugees today?

Lacy Broemel: I think this is really a hard question. There are so many different experiences at many different stages for refugees around the world. 

If you consider the source of displacement, when people have to leave their homes, that is a huge issue. There should not be war. There should not be persecution. There should not be discrimination that would force someone to leave their home.

But then on top of that, rather than think of the rising numbers of refugees and displaced people as a crisis of movement, it’s a crisis of how nation-states are responding to these individuals. I think that’s the biggest problem; there is a political aspect to our protection mechanisms that is frankly failing the people that need to seek protection right now.

Like we see in Greece, where people  are trying to come to Greece to seek asylum on boats and are being turned back. Or in the  United States during the Trump years is another example. We had the lowest resettlement ceiling and admissions that have ever happened in the history of the refugee program in the US.

It’s these political decisions that are being made, when elected officials are choosing not to protect individuals when they need protection but are rather choosing things like deterrents or essentially turning a blind eye to people in need. And that means that many refugees who have been waiting years for resettlement are going to be waiting longer.

And that can mean that there are multiple  generations of people waiting for resettlement, or it means that somebody who is just seeking resettlement or seeking asylum is being put into danger because of the efforts that they’re having to go through to try to seek safety. 


IRAP Student Advocacy Day. Credit: IRAP.


Latina Republic: What are the main issues that you see with the US refugee resettlement program in general today? 

Lacy Broemel: I think that the main problem for this program is that since 9/11 there have been so many layers upon layers of additional security vetting, bureaucracy and red tape that’s been put into place that has made this program so lengthy, to the point where it’s really non-functional. And under four years of the Trump administration the program was not only not invested in, but resources were taken away from the program.

So that means there is less personnel to do refugee interviews overseas, that means less trips to go overseas. That means closing international offices so paperwork can’t get done in a smooth and timely manner. 

It’s these bureaucratic, red tape layers that have been added upon since 9/11, and then the Trump administration was not even putting resources into making sure that those boxes were even getting checked.

So, frankly, the resettlement program is at a crisis point. It’s not able to do what it should do because of these layers of bureaucracy. The Biden administration, a year and a half in, is working to put more resources into it and to ramp up this processing, but it hasn’t done enough yet. 

We are seeing that President Biden said that there would be admissions of 125,000 refugees in this fiscal year. But we’re only going to get to maybe 20 to 23,000 refugees admitted this year. Which is a fraction of that goal. And that’s really because it’s these bureaucratic bottlenecks that the administration needs to work out.

Latina Republic: What kind of changes would you like to see the Biden administration make?

Lacy Broemel: IRAP issued a report on resettlement, and we looked at three different aspects. We looked at access to the program, adjudication, and transparency. The  first bucket, of access, is how the program works. It shouldn’t just be the UN that’s able to refer refugees to the US. NGOs, like IRAP, or others should be able to refer refugees into the program. And the Biden administration is going to do that, which is great. We also support expanding private sponsorships. People in the US or families who have family members who are refugees overseas could sponsor someone to come into the US. There should be more points of access to this program.

That’s one aspect of the access reforms that we’re calling for. And then the second is adjudication. That gets back to the nitty-gritty, like the Department of Homeland security, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, which has the Refugee Corps. Those are officers who go overseas and interview refugees.

They should hire more of those individuals, and they should change the way those individuals are deployed overseas to make sure that they’re interviewing more individuals. And there’s plenty of people to do it. They should also employ things like video technology so someone virtually  could be doing an interview with a refugee. That can expand the number of people USCIS is able to interview  and help reach more rural populations, for example.

Those are two examples and the final one is transparency. Refugees wait years without any information at all on their case. So, we think that there should be more transparency so that refugees can see the status of their case and where it is in the process. Also, the US should permit  access to counsel for refugees. They should be able to have an attorney at their interview. 

Those are three examples of really big things that could make a significant difference in the speed and the scale of the program. Because it needs to move faster for people, and it needs to be able to process more individuals.


Steve, Legal Strategy Director at IRAP, assists a client family. Credit: IRAP.


Latina Republic: What is it that takes so long? Is it all the bureaucracy, red tape, and security vetting that you were mentioning before? Or is this why we need more transparency because it’s kind of unclear?

Lacy Broemel: It’s a little bit of both. So, I think the main reason why it takes so long is this kind of black box of the security vetting process and essentially all of these checks that they have to go through. You have to do one step and then wait until that step is done and then get to the next step, wait until that step is done,  then wait until the next, and then if any of those take longer, then you have to go back to the beginning.

So, you can get stuck in this loop. I think that the system is so weighed down with this red tape. If there’s  a hump or a delay in one part of the system, then you’re going to have to go back and do another; it’s really a huge issue causing the delays.

Latina Republic: Do you think the government needs to give more support to resettlement organizations on the ground?

Lacy Broemel: Yes. So I think that a way to think about the resettlement program is there are pre-arrival questions such as, “How does a refugee even get into the United States?” and “What other hurdles does it take before someone gets here?” Those pre-arrival questions are what IRAP focuses on primarily.

And then there’s post-arrival questions, and that’s about once an individual lands in the United States and they’re working with one of the resettlement agencies. In the IRAP report that we issued last January, we did have a recommendation that said more resources should go to resettlement agencies that are stateside. And that’s for a couple of reasons.

One, they are dependent on staffing case managers around the country who support refugees and their families once they arrive in the US. They should be able to hire more staff. And second, refugees are given a very time-limited and an extremely small amount of funding to start off their lives in the US. We advocate with  Refugee Council USA which is a coalition that we’re a part of,  for additional  funding for this program that comes through Congress. Congress makes decisions about how much money the State Department’s getting, how much money the Office of Refugee Resettlements is getting, and that money ends up boiling down into a certain amount of money that a refugee receives upon their arrival to the United States. And it is a very small amount of money.

There  absolutely does need to be additional funds for even just basic initial assistance. The Refugee Congress is a great organization and they have been examining  the things that the system needs to improve from the perspective of refugees themselves. Things like better access to mental health and access to job recertification. So yes, absolutely. The program needs an influx of resources to improve the lives and resettlement of refugees themselves.

Latina Republic: What do you think policymakers in Congress really need to recognize when they’re thinking about reforming this program?

Lacy Broemel: I think there’s a lack of understanding from policymakers of what the experience is like for individuals who are resettled to the United States. There could be a lot more done to simply understand that reality. I think sometimes this narrative comes up that “refugees are here to take jobs” or, “they get all this free money from the government,” but that’s absolutely not the case. And so, I think it would be helpful for members of Congress to learn more about  what life is like for refugees once they come to the United States. And for them to understand that in their states, there are refugees that are here that are contributing. They’re simply just trying to live their lives and do the best for their families, just like everybody else. It can be really difficult to change that negative narrative, but I do think that could especially assist Congress in understanding why additional funding is needed for resettlement. 


IRAP litigation director Mari Hirose. Credit: IRAP.


Latina Republic: Yes. So, moving on a little bit to the Ukrainian refugee situation. How has the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees opened the way for improved refugee systems for other groups?

Lacy Broemel: Frankly, I would say it hasn’t yet. That’s one of the biggest concerns we have: the treatment that Ukrainians have received should be the norm and not the exception. And I think we are very concerned that that’s not the case. So unfortunately, I don’t know that we are taking lessons learned or improving or changing the system for all refugees based on the Ukrainian crisis yet. I would hope that it has galvanized people and helped people see and learn and understand what it’s like when people flee. They’re not leaving because they have a choice; they’re leaving because they have to.

In the Uniting for Ukraine program Ukrainians that come to the United States have humanitarian parole, a temporary status; it doesn’t offer a pathway to citizenship. Those are concerns for us.

Latina Republic: Okay. So, it hasn’t really taught us how we can accept refugees in a more timely manner since it is a different program? And I think it’s only two years of support? Or do you think it has?

Lacy Broemel: In some ways it has shown that when the US government decides it wants to do something, it can make it happen. But it also has shown that the US refugee admissions program right now, as it stands, is absolutely incapable of responding to an emergency humanitarian displacement situation. 

The program is too slow. As I said, with all that red tape, with all those bureaucratic layers, unfortunately it makes it so that it can’t really act in an emergency response. We should feel upset about that; that the government decided it essentially had to rely on parole because the US Refugee Admissions Program couldn’t do what it is literally designed to do. I think there are a lot of things that we’d want to learn from and change next time.

Latina Republic: What are your thoughts on refugee quotas? How many people do you think should be given the opportunity to arrive in the US?

Laura Broemel: I do think the quota should be either where it is right now or higher for the next fiscal year, but I would say that the most important thing is making sure that there are the resources in place so that the US can actually meet that quota. Right now, we’re not doing that, which shows that the US could have a quota of a million people, but if the government  isn’t putting in the resources and careful thought and pre-planning to make that a reality, then it doesn’t really matter what the  quota is.

Latina Republic: So what do you think the causes of this backlog  of resettling refugees are despite how high the ceiling is?

Laura Broemel: I think it goes back to everything I was saying about what’s been put in place since 9/11 to increase the vetting, even if that vetting doesn’t make the program actually more secure. This system has never really been fully examined from top to bottom to see if the additional layers are actually valuable or impact the function and intention of the program.  The other concern is we are living in a global pandemic right now and there are constraints that the US government has had to use to protect their officers and refugees who are in interviews. So certainly, COVID is a huge part of this backlog and the delay right now. And then of course the things that I was mentioning about the Trump administration and the choices that they made to harm the program.

Latina Republic: Why do you think the treatment of refugees is so different from that of asylum seekers at the Southern border, even though people are fleeing similar situations?

Laura Broemel: I think that connects to some of the things that I was talking about, about the misinformed public narrative. There is a fundamental misunderstanding, whether that’s innocent or purposeful, I think is up for debate, but there is a misunderstanding about who a migrant is, who an asylum seeker is, who a refugee is. And that these populations are all seeking the same kind of protection from similar  situations. I don’t think that’s publicly recognized. And I do think that there is just a political game that is played as it relates to the border. And that’s extremely unfortunate because that comes at the cost of lives.


Erica Drufva | Board Member, Policy Analyst

Erica Drufva (she/ella pronouns) is going into her final year of her undergraduate degree at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. She is a Hispanic Studies and International Relations double major with a passion for migration issues. She plans to continue to work in immigration policy analysis after graduation and later go into immigration law to make a positive impact on the lives of people migrating to the U.S. Erica is currently working on a policy report directed at Congress on revamping and improving the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program after it was decimated by the Trump administration. With millions of refugees in need of resettlement, it is urgent that the U.S. expands its capacity to safely and comfortably resettle refugees fleeing dangerous situations all over the world. Erica strongly values addressing the needs of all migrants, as well as those who are members of particularly marginalized communities, such as the LGBTQ+ community and women of color. She is excited to be working with Latina Republic as a policy analyst so she can work to make much needed change in a field she cares deeply about.