More Refugees Are Settling in Mid-Size Cities, Study Finds

By Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post, September 28, 2006

Political refugees coming to the United States are increasingly putting down roots in metropolitan areas without large immigrant populations, according to a study being released today by the Brookings Institution.

The study, the first of its kind to analyze refugee settlement patterns in metropolitan regions, found that while traditional immigrant gateways such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles still absorb most refugees, that flow has slowed in the past several years, and refugees are increasingly settling in Seattle, Atlanta, Sacramento, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland Ore., said Audrey Singer, a Brookings demographer who co-wrote the study.

“These are places that are taking on more refugees proportionally than they have in the past, and it’s helping to change the face of these cities,” Singer said.

The State Department determines the first settling place for refugees, whose ranks are limited by annual caps set by the president and Congress. The ceiling for 2006 is 70,000, with 30,000 allotted to Africa.

About two-thirds of refugees are settled in places where they have a relative or friend. The remaining third are sent to communities based on availability of social services, housing and jobs.

Some states, such as Iowa, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, have been lobbying for refugees, Singer said. “Iowa is experiencing population decline and looking into its future and sees refugee resettlement as a vital way of keeping up population,” she said.

In Los Angeles, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees of Chinese ethnic origins are credited with revitalizing Chinatown. As older Chinese immigrants left the city for the suburban San Gabriel Valley, the newly arrived refugees moved into the city and now run Chinatown businesses once owned by the older generation, the study found.

But there have been problems as well.

The researchers point to Wausau, Wis., where church groups helped Hmong refugees from Laos and Thailand resettle over the past two decades. About 1,600 came to the Wausau area from 1983 to 2004. Public services were strained, and tensions were high. Property taxes were raised to help pay for welfare programs for the Hmong, and schools had to scramble to try to meet the needs of children who did not speak English.

But as the Hmong assimilated, stresses on the local government abated. State officials report that 96 percent of the Hmong in Wausau are now employed and 60 percent own homes.

More than 2 million refugees have arrived in the United States since 1980, when Congress passed the Refugee Act. Those fleeing war or other trauma in their countries have arrived in three waves: from Southeast Asia and the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s, from Europe during the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s, and from Africa during the current decade of civil conflict.

Refugees make up about 7 percent of foreign-born residents in the United States, but the federal government spends more money integrating them into American life than any other immigrant group. Qualifying refugees are entitled to Social Security, food stamps, state child health insurance, Medicaid benefits and other assistance for their first seven years. Those who do not meet income eligibility requirements for those benefits can get cash and medical care for the first eight months. In addition, private agencies can tap federal money for a variety of social services for refugees.

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