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Study Looks at Movement Patterns of US Refugees

Refugees in US Look for Job Opportunities, Social Networks

In their search for opportunity and community, refugees in the U.S. appear just as resourceful as other immigrants. In fact, many refugees move to other states soon upon arrival in search of better job opportunities, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

The study was conducted by the Immigration Policy Lab (IPL) , which included researchers at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).

As refugees work to build a new life, many relocate to a different state soon after arrival, according to a new dataset on nearly 450,000 people who were resettled between 2000 and 2014. And when they move, they are primarily looking for better job markets and helpful social networks of others from their home country, not more generous welfare benefits, as some have suggested.

“These findings counter the stereotype that refugees are destined to become a drain on state resources over the long run,” said study co-author Jeremy Ferwerda, Ph.D. “When choosing where to live in the United States, refugees do not move to states where welfare benefits are highest. Instead, they leave states with high unemployment rates and move to states with booming economies and employment opportunities. ”

One reason we haven’t had a clear picture of refugees’ lives in the U.S. is because it isn’t easy to connect different data sets in a way that allows researchers to follow each refugee over time.

The U.S. Department of State keeps the records on new arrivals, including their country of origin, education, and ties to family or friends already living here. Records of milestones in their integration process, including becoming legal permanent residents and, later, citizens, are the province of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Making this information useful calls for new partnerships between researchers and government agencies. “We are grateful to the Office of Immigration Statistics for providing this invaluable opportunity for collaboration between IPL and OIS researchers,” said Duncan Lawrence, IPL executive director and study co-author. “This work would not have been possible without this partnership and input from knowledgeable, dedicated leaders in this office.”

Previously, researchers have had to use small samples, either through a survey asking people whether they entered the country as refugees, or using existing surveys and guessing at refugee status. Now, the IPL team had a sample of unprecedented size, accuracy, and detail.

“The law suggests that secondary migration should be monitored to help inform policymaking,” said IPL co-director and study co-author Jens Hainmueller, Ph.D. “Our study helps with that, since we have captured secondary migration for the full population, for the first time.”

One of the first things the team wanted to examine was where refugees were living. U.S. refugee resettlement agencies assign each incoming refugee to a particular place, and their local offices receive federal funding to help the newcomers get settled. Until now, we haven’t known how many of them leave their assigned location or what motivates them to move.

Since refugees are required to apply for permanent resident status a year after arrival, the team could note how many had a different address by then, and the numbers were surprising.

Of the 447,747 refugees in the study, 17 percent had moved to a different state around the one-year mark. For other noncitizens during the same period, only an estimated 3.4 percent move out of state within the same time period after arrival.

Not only were the refugees highly mobile, but there were distinct relocation patterns. Some states were much more likely than others to see their refugees leave. In Louisiana, New Jersey, and Connecticut, more than 30 percent of refugees quickly relocated, while in California and Nebraska, only 10 percent did. Midwestern states had the greatest increase in refugees from other states, with Minnesota receiving the most.

With information on so many refugees, the team was able to detect patterns among people from the same country. Those from Somalia and Ethiopia left their assigned states in the greatest numbers. Congolese refugees, who were among the most likely to stay put, were 34 percentage points less likely to move than Somalis.

So what were the refugees looking for in a home? The study found that states with a higher share of people from the refugees’ nationality tended to receive refugees from states with a lower share, and the numbers increase as the gap between the two states widens.

Economic opportunity was another strong pull factor. Refugees were especially likely to leave states with high unemployment in favor of states with low unemployment. Housing costs were another factor, though their influence was not as strong.

These findings echo research on migration patterns among recent immigrants, who have settled in different places than the traditional destinations that attracted earlier waves of newcomers. Immigrants as a whole highly value places that offer them a chance to make a good living and establish a supportive community — and refugees are no different.

U.S. refugees do stand out from other immigrants in at least one way, however. In an earlier study using the same dataset, the findings show that they become citizens at much higher rates.

Among refugees who arrived between 2000 and 2010, 66 percent had become citizens by 2015. And here again, opportunity, community, and place make a difference. Refugees placed in urban areas with lower unemployment and a larger share of co-nationals were more likely to naturalize.

Source: Stanford University- Immigration Policy Lab

Refugees in US Look for Job Opportunities, Social Networks

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Refugees in US Look for Job Opportunities, Social Networks. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 Aug 2020 (Originally: 11 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 Aug 2020
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