From Surviving to Thriving? An Investigation of Asylee Integration in the United States

109 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2015 Last revised: 9 Oct 2016

See all articles by Lindsay Muir Harris

Lindsay Muir Harris

University of San Francisco School of Law

Date Written: January 6, 2016


This article assesses the efficacy of the legal framework for asylees, individuals granted refugee status within the United States, through an examination of the human outcomes following the grant of asylum. To understand how the asylee benefits system actually functions, I conducted more than fifty field interviews with advocates, service providers, and government officials in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

This research fills a conspicuous gap in our understanding of what happens after the grant of asylum and reveals a number of insights about the ways in which the prevailing laws, policies, and programs yield suboptimal outcomes, even given the limited resources presently devoted to asylee integration. Interviews yielded important findings, including that the current legal structure and attendant administrative programs push asylees quickly into survival jobs, which are often a stark mismatch for their education and skills. For educated asylees, these survival jobs impede both English language acquisition, which is critical to successful integration, and re-credentialing to allow recognition of education and expertise acquired overseas. For less educated asylees, the rush to employment in a survival job similarly delays and potentially undermines successful integration and may result in future costs to counties, states, and the federal government. The subsequent financial distress asylees experience plays a role in housing instability and delays in applying for permanent residence. These problems are compounded by limited ongoing mental health treatment for asylees, who are often survivors of torture or trauma, and delays in the family reunification process.

This article offers several prescriptions for reform to help asylees, who have often already survived unthinkable horrors, to thrive in the United States and to allow our society to more fully benefit from asylee contributions. First, revisions to regulations implementing the Refugee Act are necessary to shift from an almost singular focus on rapid employment and economic self-sufficiency to a more holistic approach to asylee integration. Second, the playing field should be leveled for asylees by amending the current benefits package to be more aligned with the benefits received by those who are selected to enter the U.S. as resettled refugees while still overseas. Third, measures should be taken to increase asylee awareness of and access to the benefits to which they are entitled. Finally, short and long-term data gathering on asylee integration must be improved. These prescriptions for reform promise not only a more meaningful chance at life for asylees in the U.S., but will also benefit our communities as asylee contributions are maximized.

Keywords: asylum, integration, regulations, legal reform, mental health, family reunification, benefits, services, office of refugee resettlement

Suggested Citation

Harris, Lindsay M, From Surviving to Thriving? An Investigation of Asylee Integration in the United States (January 6, 2016). New York University Review of Law & Social Change, Vol. 40:29 (2016), Available at SSRN:

Lindsay M Harris (Contact Author)

University of San Francisco School of Law ( email )

2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
United States

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