By the numbers: Refugees in Illinois

Data offer a view on world history, changes in U.S. foreign policy

January 23, 2013

(AP Photo)
Rohingya refugees sit in a boat as they are intercepted by Thai authorities in January of 2013.

A listener’s question prompted our recent examination of refugee resettlement patterns in Chicago. That inquiry looked at how, and why, refugees have come to occupy apartments mostly in far North Side neighborhoods. It also got us wondering: Who were these refugees, anyhow?

Well, we can’t answer that exact question because nobody keeps precise records of how many refugees live within Chicago’s city limits. But we found that there are good data at the statewide level. Once we tumbled down that rabbit hole, we learned a lot — not just about Illinois’s shifting refugee population, but also about recent world history and shifts in American foreign policy.

Here’s the data in chart form. It’s a moving timeline that shows how many refugees arrived in Illinois each year since 1980. For each year, the refugees are sorted by country of origin:

Refugee arrivals in Illinois by country of origin (FFY1980-FFY2012)
Notes on the data

Early resettlement history

The data on the bar chart start at 1980, when Congress passed The Refugee Act, the legislation that formalized the US resettlement program. But that’s not to say refugees did not arrive earlier. “The refugee program came into public consciousness in a big way because of the drama of the fall of Saigon and the effort to rescue a lot of people who had helped us in Vietnam,” said David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia. “But it did build on much smaller programs that had been around before that.”

In particular, the US had been admitting refugees from Eastern Europe after World War II. “They came through Western Europe,” explained Martin. “They were processed by voluntary agencies in a cooperative relationship with the US government to do some screening and bring them to this country.” Among them were Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles, and large numbers of Jews from Eastern European countries. American non-governmental organizations that claimed ties to those nations, or to the refugees’ religions, took the lead in bringing them to the US and resettling them. The federal government played a small role.

Martin said the fall of Saigon in 1975 challenged the US government to assume a larger role in the refugee resettlement process. The sheer number of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia dwarfed the inflows from earlier years, demanding a more orderly intake system. And refugees from these nations could not tap into existing communities of co-religionists or compatriots, as could their Eastern European predecessors.

Today the US State Department works with the Executive Office to determine how many refugees will be allowed in each year, and from which regions of the world. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services manage the intake and placement processes. Non-governmental agencies, known as “voluntary agencies,” perform the on-the-ground work of finding apartments for new arrivals and providing them other assistance needed for a fresh start.

The Cold War and refugee patterns

As you scroll through the chart, you’ll notice a few striking things in the years before 2000. First, the number of refugees that Illinois resettled in the early 1980s was markedly higher than any time since, yet the they arrived from very few countries. The primary primary points of origin at that time were Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the USSR and Cuba. See a pattern there?

“One way of viewing the refugee program, particularly since 1955, is that the program was influenced by the Cold War,” said Dr. Edwin Silverman, Chief of the Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services at the Illinois Department of Human Services. “Refugee resettlement was mainly focused on those refugees fleeing communism or communist regimes.”

Check out what happens in the chart in 1989, where you can watch the number of refugees from the former USSR suddenly jump — from 731 to nearly 3,000. The number remains high even after the 1991 dissolution of the USSR, and the trend doesn’t stop until 1996, when the refugee count from the former USSR plummets abruptly to four. The change is largely an accounting artifact: There was a lag between when the USSR broke up, and when the refugee processing records reflected that. The lag appears to have ended in 1996, when the former USSR number drops, and a slew of new countries suddenly appear in the chart. Many of those are the post-Soviet states, registering their own numbers for the first time.

Another notable change happened in 1996, when Illinois started receiving refugees from many more African countries. The reason? The US had tapped out the pool of refugees coming from the Cold War countries. “We had been processing those populations for 15-20 years,” said Kelly Gauger, Deputy Director of the Refugee Admissions Office in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. State Department. Finally, there was room in the program for refugees from other nations. “We started to work more closely with the UN High Commission for Refugees, and they started referring more African cases to us for our consideration,” said Gauger.

Another significant development in the 1990s was the increased flow of refugees from the conflict that embroiled Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Between 1996 and 2001, this was the largest group to come to Illinois.

The 9/11 lockout, then a new norm

Perhaps you noticed the major dropoff in 2002 and 2003. Those are the only years since the Refugee Resettlement Act that Illinois admitted fewer than 1000 refugees. This is no anomaly, as the same dip occurred across the country.

“There were significantly increased requirements for refugee security checks in the wake of September 11th,” said Gauger. “So those two years reflected the difficulty in pushing tens of thousands of new security checks through the system.” The dropoff had significant financial impact on local resettlement agencies because they receive federal funding on a per-refugee basis. But those difficulties were somewhat resolved by 2004, Gauger said, when the refugee resettlement process worked through kinks in the new security procedures.

More recently, Illinois has hovered around 2,000 refugees per year, a figure lower than those of the early ‘80s, but it’s still greater than the lull of 2003. This, too, mirrors a recovery and stabilization at the national level during this decade. But the picture of the refugee program is significantly different from its early years.

“The program has just become less political and more humanitarian in nature over the last ten to fifteen years” said Gauger, alluding to the time when refugee status was mainly designated for those fleeing communist regimes. Today, most refugees are referred by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, which deemed them to have a legitimate fear of persecution in their home country.

This has meant that in recent years, Illinois and other states have been resettling refugees from a greater diversity of countries. Many local resettlement agencies have struggled to develop the language competency required to assist such distinct groups. This year, the largest number of refugees to Illinois will be coming from Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan.

Notes on our data

The data come from the Refugee Processing Center, a division of the U.S. State Department. Each year represented is the federal fiscal year, meaning October 1 through September 30. This is particularly notable when you consider the aforementioned dip in refugees in 2002; That federal fiscal year began just days after the September 11 attacks.

The refugee numbers from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1981 and 1982 are estimates. While the original data record total refugees to Illinois from East Asia in those years, they are not broken down by country. These estimates are based on the proportion that each of those countries represented in the total East Asian intake to the U.S. during those years.

Another interesting artifact of the data: You will find, among the listed countries, “Amerasian.” According to Martin, “Amerasian” was a designation mainly applied to children of mixed heritage after the Vietnam War. “With a large presence of US troops there, there were a number of children who were born to basically the Vietnamese women, fathered by U.S. citizens,” he explained. “Because of their parentage, they were sufficiently different in appearance that they suffered a lot of discrimination, many of them did.”