At a time when politicians and others are expressing concern about the U.S.’s refugee resettlement process, two new studies show that refugees want to integrate and are indeed integrating into the fabric of our country. However, there is much variation depending on the refugees’ country of origin, and there remains room for improved policies aimed at facilitating resettlement in American communities. The U.S. refugee resettlement program remains focused on employment and self-sufficiency. This new research points to policy interventions that could be designed to ensure that refugees fully integrate and contribute to their communities.

A new report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) examines the 941,000 young children of refugee parents, ages zero to 10, living in the U.S. between 2009-13, and a new study from Colorado examines the progress that state’s refugees have made. Both of these reports showed strong indicators of integration yet highlighted that challenges remain.

Because the children of refugees may be particularly vulnerable to poor developmental and academic outcomes, it is critical to examine the characteristics of this group while they are very young if there is a chance for negative outcomes to be avoided. The majority of these children (89 percent) were born in the U.S. and are therefore U.S. citizens, but newer refugee arrivals, such as Burmese and Iraqis, are more likely to be born in the countries of origin.  While their parents have arrived from many different countries, one-third of all young children of refugees are from two countries – Vietnam and Cuba.

Generally, the young children of refugees demonstrate positive indicators of integration. For example, they tend to live in strong family structures. The children of refugees are more likely to live with two parents or with grandparents than either other children of immigrants or children of U.S.-born parents. Overall, their parents were relatively well educated. Thirty-three percent had college educated fathers, and thirty percent had college educated mothers, which is slightly higher than children of other immigrants and slightly lower than the parents of U.S.-born children. However there is large variation by country of origin; Colombian, Russian, and Iranian refugee parents tend to be highly educated, while those from Burma, Somalia, and Laos have lower levels of education.

MPI found that the children of refugees also face risk factors including linguistic isolation, high poverty levels, and low preschool enrollment. Nearly one-third of the children lived in homes where no one age 14 or over spoke English very well, and one-quarter or the children lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. However, the children of refugees generally had better access to health coverage and public benefits than the children of other immigrants. Because refugees are immediately eligible for certain public benefits when they arrive, they are more likely to access benefits and services to improve their well-being.

Looking at ten different measures of integration, researchers found that refugees in Colorado moved steadily from low to high integration and showed marked improvement over time. Refugees obtained full-time employment, family income increased, English language ability improved, and they obtained health insurance. A very high percentage expressed a desire to become U.S. citizens. However, as in the MPI report, the researchers identified remaining challenges. For example, older refugees did not integrate as well as those who arrived when they were younger. And while young children showed good progress in school, their parents did not necessarily participate in school-related opportunities to socialize with other parents or further their own education.

The researchers point out that some of these outcomes are susceptible to policy interventions while others are not. For example, the U.S. does not have much control over how much education refugees have prior to their arrival. However, the federal government and states could focus more resources on increasing preschool enrollment rates for refugee children. Research has found that this early intervention pays dividends later in life. Similarly, allocating additional resources to English language acquisition would benefit refugee families in nearly every aspect of integration.

As the U.S. plans to welcome new groups of refugees, policies that anticipate their needs can ensure that they become contributing members of U.S. society just as numerous refugees have done before them.

Photo Courtesy of DFID.