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Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the US

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The U.S. has long been a destination for people seeking asylum.

As of 2022, there were more than 46.1 million immigrants in the U.S. That’s about 13.9% of the U.S. population, similar numbers to 100 years ago. (CDP recognizes that all people residing in the U.S., with the exception of Native Americans, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. For the purposes of this profile, we’re referring to people with current immigrant or migrant status).

Federal and state legislation and actions increasingly make it difficult for asylum seekers and migrants to enter the country, and the United States spends billions annually detaining immigrants.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, “The United States has in recent years spent more money on immigration enforcement than at any other point in history. For fiscal year (FY) 2024, the Biden administration has asked Congress for nearly $25 billion for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an increase of almost $800 million over the previous year and nearly equal to the entire gross domestic product of Iceland.”

Those seeking asylum in 2023 are fleeing complex humanitarian emergencies, including Venezuela, the war in Ukraine, the Northern Triangle of Central America and Haiti. These contexts have made meeting basic survival needs a daily struggle for much of the population. Many face persecution in their country of origin, particularly those already marginalized, leading people to seek a better life and protection for themselves and their families.

According to Human Rights Watch, “The United States’ asylum statutes implement protections for refugees found in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention (and its 1967 Protocol), developed in the wake of the Second World War. An individual seeking asylum protection is sometimes referred to as an asylum seeker. An individual can request asylum from within the United States or at the U.S. border, whether after entering the country between ports of entry or at a port of entry … Applicants must file within one year of their arrival in the United States, absent extraordinary circumstances.”

This means asylum seekers do not need to apply immediately after entering the U.S.

Many people use the words refugee and asylum seeker (sometimes called an asylee) and migrant interchangeably, but they are all different groups with different legal protections and rights. The following two definitions are from Amnesty International:

“A refugee is a person who has fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there. The risks to their safety and life were so great that they felt they had no choice but to leave and seek safety outside their country because their own government cannot or will not protect them from those dangers. Refugees have a right to international protection.

An asylum seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.”

While there is no internationally agreed-upon definition of a migrant, states that a migrant is “someone who is moving from place to place (within his or her country or across borders), usually for economic reasons such as seasonal work.”

Human Rights Watch emphasizes that meeting the definition of a refugee requires “an applicant to demonstrate they are:

  • Unable or unwilling to return to that country and unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country;
  • Because of [past] persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution
  • On account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The last point is key for asylum seekers as their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion was or would be ‘one central reason’ for the persecution.”

(Photo: Migrant camp near the U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico. Credit: Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash)

Once someone has been approved for asylum, they become a refugee and are entitled to all rights granted to refugees through the 1951 Refugee Convention. This includes traveling outside of the U.S., sponsoring family members, working and applying for legal permanent resident status (a ‘green card’).

As mentioned above, asylum seekers come from many countries around the world.

In FY 2023 (Oct. 1 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023), ), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recorded over 3.2 million encounters. While it is often assumed that most asylum seekers are from Mexico, Mexican citizens make up just under 736,000 encounters. In fact, asylum seekers are from countries as disparate as China, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, India,  Myanmar, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela. This included 2,061,723 million single adults, 993,947 individuals in a family unit, 137,992 unaccompanied minors and 7,482 accompanied minors.

This compares to less than 700,000 encounters in all of 2020, 1.96 million encounters in 2021 and 2.76 million encounters in 2022. The increase in the number of people fleeing their countries corresponds to the global rise in humanitarian needs and forced displacement resulting primarily from the impacts of disasters caused by climate change, conflict, persecution, human rights violations and, more recently, COVID-19, which presented its own risks and further compounded existing crises.

With an exception of a dip in 2020 during COVID-19, encounters at U.S. borders have been growing since 2017, with an all-time high in fiscal year 2023. In 2022, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. was at its second-lowest (excluding 2020 and 2021, when few people were admitted because of COVID) since 1990 – only 25,465 people. The continuing conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan and the increase in refugees accepted from Venezuela, may significantly increase this number in 2023-2024.

According to Statista, “since 2007, the United States has approved around one million green cards per year. Nearly one fifth of the permanent residency approvals in 2020 were for persons residing in California.”

When the U.S. admits fewer people as refugees and immigrants, there is more need for people to seek asylum in other ways.

Throughout this profile, when the term “border” is used, it refers to any border of the United States, which includes the world’s longest undefended border with Canada, a border with Mexico and several U.S. states, and maritime borders on several coasts. However, most people cross along the U.S. border with Mexico, known as the Southwest Land Border.

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Key facts
  • According to WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America), “The right to seek asylum upon reaching U.S. soil at the U.S.-Mexico border is established by Section 208 of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the fundamental U.S. immigration law. This right exists regardless of nation of origin, the route taken to the border, or the means by which the migrant crossed into the United States.”
  • An agreement signed in October 2022 stranded tens of thousands of Venezuelans in Mexico or en route to the United States with no opportunity to access the U.S. Those who were already en route – estimated to be over 50,000 – were ineligible to even apply to enter the United States. Additionally, this agreement only applied to Venezuelan residents with a U.S. sponsor who will “provide housing and other supports” and pay for their flights because the only way to enter the United States under this agreement is by air.
  • A Safe Third Country agreement means that if an individual traveled through a country deemed a “safe third country” by the U.S. government, they would be returned to that country to apply for asylum rather than having the opportunity to apply for asylum in the U.S. Currently, the U.S. has a limited safe third country agreement with Canada (asylum seekers in either direction are returned).
  • While not technically a Safe Third County agreement, the U.S. and Mexico reached an agreement at the beginning of May 2023 that allows the U.S. to return asylum seekers who cross through Mexico from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The U.S. agrees to take applicants from several of these countries who apply from overseas and have a U.S. sponsor. Mexico also processes expulsions from citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
  • In September 2023, the Biden Administration’s Department of Homeland Security announced an 18-month extension and redesignation of Venezuelans for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This protects all Venezuelans present in the United States prior to July 31, 2023 from removal and grants them employment authorization. The extension provides protected status to an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans in addition to the approximately 242,700 protected Venezuelans already in the United States.
  • The majority of the 35,289 detainees in ICE detention in September 2023 have no criminal record (68.7%), while many others have only minor offenses such as traffic violations.
Why are people leaving their homes?

The reasons people have for leaving their homes are as varied as the countries that they arrive from. Some are fleeing war, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or conflict in places like Myanmar and Yemen. Others are fleeing from countries ravaged by extreme poverty, multiple disasters, human rights violations, climate change, persecution and gang violence. Some are fleeing complex humanitarian emergencies in and around places like Venezuela and the Horn of Africa.

Meghan Lopez, the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) regional vice president for Latin America, says, “People are usually displaced within their own countries first. … However, the vast majority encounter risks and deteriorating living conditions similar to the ones they fled, leaving them no choice but to seek safety elsewhere.”

For example, according to IOM, nearly 200,000 Haitians are now displaced from their homes by gang violence, particularly in Carrefour-Feuilles and Savanes Pistaches. Approximately 70,000 of these are forced to find makeshift shelter solutions, many of whom are sleeping in open air, classrooms, spontaneous settlements and collective centres.

As host communities’ abilities to support these populations are exceeded, secondary displacement occurs, sometimes to neighboring countries. More than 115,000 Haitian refugees were forcibly returned to Haiti in 2023 by neighboring countries. Responding to the impacts of increased gang violence, the IOM and government of Haiti are requesting $21 million USD and activating the Shelter Cluster to coordinate the distribution of aid to displaced Haitians.

A New Humanitarian article from November 2022 stated, “Haitian women and children are not just being caught up in the country’s spiralling gang wars – they are increasingly being targeted for rapes, torture, kidnappings, and killings by the 200 armed groups that now control 60% of the capital. On top of the daily struggle to survive, many are being left with trauma or injuries from attacks.”

An October 2022 report from the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found: “Children as young as 10 and elderly women have been subjected to sexual violence – including collective rapes for hours in front of their parents or children by more than half a dozen armed elements – amid an explosion of gang violence in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince … Gangs use sexual violence to instill fear, and alarmingly the number of cases increases by the day as the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Haiti deepens … The gruesome testimonies shared by victims underscore the imperative for urgent action to stop this depraved behaviour, ensure that those responsible are held to account, and the victims are provided support.”

Similar gang violence and organized crime continue to drive migration from Central America northward.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), drivers of migration from Central and South America range from “heavily armed gangs, drug traffickers and transnational criminal organisations fuel society-wide corruption, and gender-based violence” to “the consequences of climate change and extreme weather events, destabilising livelihoods, and reducing access to resources”.

The NRC further states, “North Central America has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. The crisis manifests in forced displacement of entire communities, gang recruitment of children and young people, a lack of access to medical care, and large numbers of children dropping out of school. Rates of sexual violence and femicide far exceed rates globally.”

While the numbers are comparatively small, there is a growing trend of African migrants traveling through South and Central America on their way to the US-Mexico border, many of whom seek to apply for asylum. According to the Migration Policy Institute, these migrants, from a range of African countries, are driven to migration by widespread and long-term structural challenges that result in civil conflicts and coup d’états, climate-related hazards, poor economic performance, as well as rapid economic growth.

Panama’s National Migration Service reports a record number of migrants crossing the dangerous jungles of the Darién Gap. As of September 2023, nearly 400,000, mostly from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Haiti, had made the trek.

Africans, on the other hand, tend to fly directly into Central America. Honduras saw a 553% increase in Africans crossing its southern border.

Meanwhile in Venezuela, the collapse of the country’s economy and currency along with associated food shortages and limited access to health care continue to drive Venezuelans to migrate.

According to the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), co-led by UNHCR and IOM, as of September 2023, there were over 7.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide. Nearly six out of seven of those migrants are in Latin America and the Caribbean in contexts that are already dangerous, with chronic gang violence, extreme weather, and difficult living conditions.

Most are finding it difficult to access food, shelter, health care, education and employment as they seek to integrate into host communities. Additionally, these Venezuelan migrants are at higher risk of human trafficking, forced recruitment into gangs and gender-based violence. In many host communities, hospitality and goodwill is waning. All of these challenges contribute to secondary displacement as migrants seek better conditions elsewhere.

Where are people coming from?

The ceilings for refugee admissions and regional allocations are set by Congress and the president each year. For the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years, the admission ceiling was 125,000.  In Fiscal Year (FY) 2023, just over 60,000 refugees were resettled, and in the first month of FY2024, 7,354 refugees have already been admitted to the US.

In FY 2023, the largest number of refugees (14.5%; 18,145 people) came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Syria had the second-highest number of people at 10,781 or 8.6%. The top 10 countries (DRC, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Guatemala, Sudan, Venezuela, Somalia, Ukraine and Iraq) represented 40% (50,487 people) of all refugee arrivals.

By contrast, those crossing the land borders seeking asylum have a different geographic profile than refugee claimants. In FY 2022, 1.45 million claimants came from South or Central America or the Caribbean. Of these, 545,833 came from the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras). Given the proximity to the U.S., at least 823,057 people from Mexico claimed asylum in FY 2022.

Table 1: Top Countries of Refugee Admissions by Nationality, FY 2023

Source: Graphic created by CDP with data from Refugee Processing Center
What are conditions like along the way?

Asylum-seekers from South American countries like Colombia and Venezuela must cross the dangerous Darien Gap, a 65-mile stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama, where they face poisonous snakes, insects, terrorist groups, unexploded Cold War-era bombs, and both organized and random acts of violence. Women and girls, as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, are especially susceptible to gender-based violence by other migrants and the criminals who prey on those seeking to reach the U.S.

Many asylum-seekers attempt to access the U.S. by purchasing services from criminal gangs specializing in human smuggling. This is a trade that is worth an estimated $13 billion annually.

According to the New York Times, “Migrant smuggling on the U.S. southern border has evolved over the past 10 years from a scattered network of freelance “coyotes” into a multi-billion-dollar international business controlled by organized crime, including some of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.”

Many of these criminals are deliberately misleading asylum seekers about immigration policies and conditions at the U.S. border through misinformation posted on social media. By taking advantage of the poor English skills and lack of education of many asylum seekers, this misinformation is designed to push people to use gangs of smugglers instead of attempting to make the treacherous crossing on their own. Despite the promises of support and organization, people who are being smuggled across the U.S. border are often left to fend for themselves in deadly situations.

Those who don’t try to cross by land can also find themselves in deadly situations. More and more often, asylum seekers from South America are attempting to reach the United States by sea instead of by land. In March 2023, two boats used for human smuggling capsized off the coast of San Diego, California, leaving eight people dead – seven of whom were migrants from Mexico.

In the Gulf of Mexico, asylum-seekers from Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other countries are also seeking refuge by sea in growing numbers. In November 2023,  89 migrants from the Dominican Republic were interdicted by the US Coast Guard in Puerto Rico’s Mona Passage.

According to the Missing Migrants Project, 2022 saw the highest number of deaths and disappearances of migrants in the Caribbean since recording began in 2014. There were at least 321 disappearances and deaths of whom, “66 were women, 64 men, and 28 boys, girls, and adolescents, while 163 remain unidentified.”

Data for 2023 thus far indicates 75 deaths and disappearances, the vast majority of whom are men and died from drowning during the treacherous crossing.

What happens at the U.S. border?

The right to seek asylum is enshrined in both international and U.S. law. According to the International Rescue Committee, “People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned back, used for political stunts or separated from their children.”

Traditionally, and at all Ports of Entry (POE) other than the Southwest Border land crossing, those who arrive at a designated POE can apply for asylum immediately. Typically, they are transported to an ICE detention center where they will be interviewed to determine whether their claim for asylum meets the definition of credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture. This process can take between two weeks and two months to complete, with the asylum seeker remaining in the detention center throughout the process.

If the interviewer determines that there is a credible fear, the asylum-seeker will face a second interview in which their asylum status will be determined. After this second interview, the asylum seeker may be granted asylum, along with their spouse and any unmarried children under 21. This also entitles an asylum seeker to receive applicable benefits. If they are not granted asylum, they will be processed for removal and have a final opportunity to present their case for asylum to an immigration judge. If the immigration judge does not grant them asylum, they are deemed inadmissible to the United States and removed under Title 8.

See the “Southwest Land Border Crossing” section for more information on what happens at that crossing.

Migrant Protection Protocols

The Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, forced migrants to return to Mexico to wait for an asylum hearing. This program is currently caught in legal wrangling, with multiple conflictual rulings.

A mid-December 2022 ruling did not allow the Biden administration to rescind it, as per the June 2022 Supreme Court ruling, but it also did not require the Biden administration to reinstate the policy. Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in February 2023 that it would reject all efforts to reinstate the policy. The policy remains in limbo but has been mostly replaced by the asylum ban.

From 2018 to mid-August 2022, the Remain in Mexico program sent over 70,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico, where they faced dangerous living conditions and risks of violence and assault from gangs.

Human Rights First, as of Dec. 15, 2022, had “tracked over 13,480 reports of murder, torture, kidnapping, rape, and other violent attacks on migrants and asylum seekers blocked in or expelled to Mexico” since January 2021.

Title 42

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States used another section of federal law, known as Title 42, to remove people from the United States. People expelled under Title 42 were deemed inadmissible because the officer who first encountered or interviewed them believed they may spread COVID-19.

From March 2020 to March 2023, almost 2.8 million migrants were expelled at the U.S. – Mexico border, under Title 42.

The use of this legislation expired on May 11, 2023 (coinciding with the end of the U.S. COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.) It was believed that the end of this program would lead to a surge of migrant claims, especially at the southwest land border, but while there has been an ongoing increase it is not different from the previous steady growth.

Interestingly, in August 2023, NBC reported that CBP was sending fewer migrants back to Mexico than previously: “On average, about 1,000 migrants have been sent back across the border into Mexico since Title 42 ended May 11, compared with nearly 3,000 a day in April. As a proportion of total border crossers, about 14% of undocumented migrants caught crossing into the U.S. each day in July were sent back into Mexico, down from a daily average of 32% in April.”

Southwest Land Border Crossing

Following the end of Title 42, the Biden administration introduced a new rule entitled “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways.” Under this rule, asylum seekers must obtain an appointment to enter through a mobile app, but only a limited number of appointments are available each day. In June, Customs and Border Protection increased the number of daily appointments from 1,250 a day to 1,450 per day.

“Each day, CBP One™ allocates the majority of appointments randomly to those who requested an appointment at each port of entry. The remainder are allocated to the requestors with the oldest accounts who have been waiting the longest for an appointment.”

Migrants at the Southwest Border Land Crossing are not able to request asylum if they did not request refugee status in another country – including Mexico – as they traveled to the U.S. southern border. This policy has faced criticism from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and other immigrant organizations. It is similar to the Trump administration’s transit ban.

VOA reported that “The rule does not apply to unaccompanied children, asylum-seekers who entered at a legal port of entry, or those running from ‘imminent’ harm. It is also set to expire in two years.”

This rule too has been subject to lawsuits and while it remains in limbo, it is still being operationalized.

According to NBC, “Mexico has agreed to take back 30,000 non-Mexican migrants per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela.”

What are the conditions for those detained at the border?

According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “Conditions in CBP custody are notorious for their harshness and inadequacies. Whether inside or in outside holding ‘pens,’ CBP detains migrants in dangerous conditions. These facilities can be dangerously overcrowded, migrants forced to wear soiled or dripping wet clothes for days, and the only ‘hot meal’ offered are frozen burritos.”

In September 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called on the U.S.  government to close one of its detention centers run by CoreCivic, a for-profit company that earned $1.86 billion in 2021 – most of it from their prisons. The ACLU spoke out after a migrant committed suicide at the facility. The New York Times noted that there was a lengthy history of problems at this facility which houses only 160 immigrants – but where ICE pays for over 500 beds daily whether they are used or not. In October, Canadian immigration experts presented their case to the Supreme Court of Canada that the United States should not be considered a safe country to which migrants can return based on conditions for those detained in immigration facilities. In November 2022, a bipartisan review of conditions at an immigration detention center in Georgia found that immigrants “endured excessive, unnecessary gynecological procedures, often without consent.”

To offer their children a better life and to prevent them from being recruited into gangs, families often send their children, unaccompanied, across borders.

The US Government defines an “unaccompanied child” (UC) as “a child who has no lawful immigration status in the United States; has not attained 18 years of age; and, with respect to whom, there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody” (6 U.S.C. §279(g)(2).

In early 2021, hundreds of kids were found living in plastic sheathed “pods” designed for 260 children – though some contained over 400 children. An investigation by Politico Magazine and The Marshall Project found that approximately 1 in 3 migrants held in border patrol detention centers were children. These kids were left to sleep on concrete floors with bright lights that interfered with their ability to sleep.

To help address these challenges, the Unaccompanied Children (UC) Program, managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), itself a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is charged with the care and custody of these minors. UCs are referred to ORR by DHS and CBP once they are found and apprehended. Upon entering the Program, children are put in contact with their parents, guardians or relatives. Then, the process of securing a suitable sponsor begins.

In the meantime, UCs “are provided age-appropriate care and wraparound services in one of the 296 facilities and programs in 27 states funded by ORR.” These services include classroom education, mental and medical health services, case management, recreation, and unification services to facilitate safe and timely reunion of children with family or other sponsors.

According to ORR, “ORR has provided care for and found suitable sponsors for over 410,000 unaccompanied children. For the first nine years of the UC Program at ORR, fewer than 8,000 children were served annually. Since Fiscal Year 2012 (October 1, 2011 – September 30, 2012), this number has jumped dramatically, with a total of 13,625 children referred to ORR by the end of FY 2012. The program received 24,668 unaccompanied children’s referrals from DHS in FY 2013, 57,496 referrals in FY 2014, 33,726 referrals in FY 2015, 59,170 in FY 2016, 40,810 in FY 2017, 49,100 in FY 2018, 69,488 in FY 2019, 15,381 in FY 2020, and 122,731 in FY 2021. In FY 2022, DHS referred 128,904 unaccompanied children to ORR. […] In FY 2022, approximately 72% of all children referred were over 14 years of age, and 64% were boys. In FY 2022, countries of origin of youth in this program were approximately as follows: Guatemala (47%); Honduras (29%); El Salvador (13%); and other (11%). […] As of November 3, 2023, there are 9,442 unaccompanied children in HHS’ care and the average length of time an unaccompanied child remained in ORR’s care was 28 days. ORR is working to further reduce length of care in ways that do not jeopardize the safety or welfare of the children.”

What else happens once they reach the U.S.?

Asylum seekers are often subject to physical and emotional abuse from misinformed people who do not understand how the asylum and refugee process works. Thanks in part to partisan news sources that use inflammatory rhetoric, asylum seekers can be subject to race-based abuse or forced into illegal employment by people who threaten or manipulate them using their immigration status. Many are forced to live in homeless shelters, some of which are many miles from organizations that can provide employment, health and other supports.

Once they reach the United States and are granted permission to stay, asylum seekers may still be forcefully relocated by politicians and communities that are unwelcoming to asylees, migrants and refugees. Thousands of people granted legal access to the United States, whether through the asylum process or another process, have been relocated to “Sanctuary Cities,” where laws have been enacted prohibiting the removal of migrants and refugees. Republican governors in both Texas and Florida have sent asylees to places like New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.

These relocations are unilateral, with refugees and asylees packed into buses and sent to cities that are unprepared to receive them and without coordination between those sending the refugees and the cities receiving them. In September 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis paid for 48 asylees to be flown from San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard without the knowledge of Texas Governor Greg Abbott or anyone on Martha’s Vineyard. These individuals were reportedly recruited by a former military counterintelligence officer and then abandoned in Martha’s Vineyard with no support, and nobody prepared to meet them.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, in conjunction with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Texas National Guard, launched Operation Lone Star in 2021 to respond to the rise in border crossings of migrants. Since then, Texas has bused over 12,500 migrants to Washington, D.C., over 18,500 to New York City, over 13,500 to Chicago, over 3,200 to Philadelphia, another 3,200 to Denver, and over 940 migrants to Los Angeles.

In the fall of 2023, the Biden Administration considered a Reagan-era legislation that would force migrant families to remain in Texas while undergoing their initial asylum screenings. Such an idea would involve tracking migrants’ locations using GPS ankle monitors. “Republican leaders, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have said they would attempt to block the policy should it be instituted.”

Earlier in 2023, New York City Mayor Eric Adams moved to create the Office of Asylum Seeker Operations (OASO) along with a new 24/7 arrival center for asylum seekers and issued “The Road Forward: Blueprint to Address New York City’s Response to the Asylum Seeker Crisis.

The plan outlines a comprehensive approach to better managing the caseload of new asylum seekers arriving to NYC. Most notably, the new centralized 24/7 arrival center will replace the Port Authority bus terminal as the primary destination for asylum seekers and the City will invest in support for relocation, long-term housing and resettlement. Additionally, the City will make it easier for asylum seekers to legally work and provide workforce development training and services as well as legal services.

Most recently, the Democrat mayors of Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and New York wrote a letter to the Biden Administration urging a meeting to discuss how to better manage the arriving migrants beyond the $1.4 billion supplemental appropriation provided by the Administration to help provide food, shelter and other services for new arrivals.

According to the letter: “Right now, Denver is spending almost $2 million a week on shelter, New York City has surpassed $1.7 billion in spending and Chicago has spent over $320 million.” They go on to request an additional $5 billion to cover existing and future expenditures for these five cities. They also request approvals of and expanded access to work authorization for eligible migrants. Finally, they advocate for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) be tasked with “a coordinated entry and distribution process of newcomers once they arrive.”

Immigration detention

There are more than 200 immigrant detention facilities. The map below shows private detention facilities in red and public facilities in blue. While there are more public facilities overall, the majority of immigration detainees are held in private centers, benefitting the companies who run them, often at the expense of the detainees.

According to the ACLU, ”as of July 2023, 90.8 percent of people detained in ICE custody each day are held in detention facilities owned or operated by private prison corporations.” The ACLU says these companies include “GEO Group, CoreCivic, LaSalle Corrections, and the Management Training Corporation.”

These amounts are significant. For FY 2023, Congress approved $2.9 billion in detention costs. This number was decreased to $1.3 billion with a lower anticipated population of 25,000 people daily for FY 2024, instead of 34,000 people in 2023. However, there is room to add the removed 9,000 beds back into the budget, if needed.

In 2022, 43.9% of the GEO Group’s total revenue came from its $1.05 billion in ICE contracts. Of this, $408 million (17%) was for electronic monitoring. CoreCivic made about half as much with $552.2 million in revenue, or 30% of its overall revenue.

As of September 2023, there were 10,189 individuals in detention in Texas, 4,515 in Louisiana, 1,937 in California, 1,840 in Arizona and 1,745 in Georgia. Of the 14 ICE detention facilities in Louisiana, 10 are private facilities.

Migration Policy Institute said, “U.S. border enforcement spending is not just a federal matter. Texas, for example, spent about $4 billion on border enforcement in 2021 and 2022 for Operation Lone Star, which included funding for the state’s own border wall and to bus thousands of migrants from border towns to Democrat-led cities in the U.S. interior.”

Source: Freedom for Immigrants
What happens if denied entry?

People who are denied entry into the U.S. are either returned to the country they crossed from (Mexico or Canada usually) or to their home country. The safe transit policies recently agreed upon between Mexico and the U.S. mean that individuals from several countries can be returned to Mexico, instead of their home country, an act that is significantly cheaper for the U.S.

Denial will rely heavily now on Title 8 legislation (mentioned above). According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Individuals who unlawfully cross the U.S. Southwest border: will generally be processed under Title 8 expedited removal authorities in a matter of days; will be barred from reentry to the United States for at least five years if ordered removed; and would be presumed ineligible for asylum under the proposed Circumvention of Lawful Pathways regulation, absent an applicable exception.”

Addressing issues of asylum-seeking and the factors that cause people to leave their homes is a matter that needs international attention. It is not going to be easy and will be a long-term process. It will take a combination of political will, advocacy, policy changes and increased funding for humanitarian aid at the border, in countries of origin, and in neighboring refugee and asylee hosting countries. In addition, the root causes of humanitarian crises need to be addressed, and solutions must involve human rights, international development and peacebuilding actors.

Systems must be established, including an emergency response network that can be activated when large numbers of asylum-seekers attempt to come to the U.S. There is no comprehensive, holistic and strategic plan to support large humanitarian influxes. This leads to a crisis that requires people to respond with increased force to keep people out, instead of a humanitarian approach focused on integration and settlement.

Hispanics in Philanthropy have suggested a three-prong approach:

  • Support organizations that are based in sending communities or those that migrants pass through on the way to the U.S. border.
  • Provide resources to shelters and other organizations at the Mexico-U.S. border. They are already incredibly overwhelmed and need support to help them meet the needs of migrants and asylum seekers.
  • Address the needs of migrants in cities throughout the country, especially in sanctuary cities that are receiving thousands of migrants. They also note the need for the organizations supporting migrants to receive support themselves due to the risk of burnout and trauma, in the wake of extreme caseloads and targeted violence.

Humanitarian support within the U.S.

There are several groups providing support to refugees and asylum seekers at the border and in communities where they settle. These services help individuals address their basic needs, including legal services, education, health care, housing support, etc. Navigating American systems is a challenge, especially for those who have experienced trauma or for whom English is not their primary language. Community organizations help individuals obtain the services that they need, including healing and emotional/spiritual care.

There is a need to support organizations providing these direct services, whether at the border, in sending countries, and any communities hosting migrants, refugees and asylees, especially in large numbers. People who have increased risk factors in settlement, including single mothers, people with disabilities, seniors, Indigenous communities, non-Spanish or English speakers etc., must receive targeted services to support their unique needs.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy and National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD) can support funders looking to find responding nonprofits on the U.S. side of the border.

CDP and InterAction are also sources of information for funders looking to find nonprofits responding to crises in countries outside of the USA. Some of the issues and humanitarian needs of those countries are addressed in our other profiles, including Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Ukraine, and our weekly What We’re Watching Blog.


Invest in groups that are working for policy changes. This includes supporting faster and less complicated asylum processes; improved conditions in detainment centers; better support and services for those waiting to cross the border and those who have been granted asylum; stronger government support for migrants, asylees and refugees seeking work; and support for those who fight racial injustice for refugees, migrants, asylees and U.S. citizens.

The work for policy changes and advocacy must occur on both sides of the U.S. border, and in countries of origin for migrants. Advocacy for increased U.S. and international donor support to tackle root causes, improve negative conditions in sending countries, and adequately fund humanitarian response plans in disaster and crisis-affected countries is also important.

There is also a need to support calls for increased federal funding and assistance to cities and states experiencing large influxes of asylum seekers.

Multi-sectoral aid and support

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the UN body responsible for monitoring and supporting people moving under both regular migration – which takes place within the laws of the receiving country – and irregular migration. Refugees are among a group generally known as forced migrants, those that do not have an option other than to leave their homes.

The IOM says: “Countries should promote stability, education and employment opportunities and reduce the drivers of forced migration, including by promoting resilience, thereby enabling individuals to make the choice between staying or migrating.”

Philanthropic support can work in countries of origin to create new opportunities for economic and physical stability, education at all levels from preschool to post-secondary and unique employment opportunities that may not be possible through UN or government-led aid programs.

Support Indigenous Peoples

Many support programs focus on Latinx migrants, but they tend to ignore the plight of Indigenous Peoples. This means many of the services provided for migrants and asylum seekers are Spanish-language-based and are not prepared in Indigenous languages. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy puts forth three suggestions for supporting Indigenous migrants:

  • “Fund Indigenous-led migrant organizations.
  • Build the capacity of Indigenous-led groups.
  • Fund interpretation language justice initiatives for and by Indigenous people.”

CDP supports complex migration issues from two angles. Within the U.S., and specifically at the border, our CDP Disaster Recovery Fund, is poised to support needs of cross-border and migrant organizations. For the factors influencing migration in the sending communities, our CDP Global Recovery Fund, supports building stability by addressing humanitarian crises.

Support recovery now

Contact CDP

Philanthropic contributions

If you have questions about donating to the CDP Disaster Recovery Fund or the CDP Global Recovery Fund, need help with your disaster-giving strategy or want to share how you’re responding to this disaster, please contact development.

(Photo: U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. Credit: Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash)

Recovery updates

If you are a responding NGO, please send updates on how you are working in this crisis to Tanya Gulliver-Garcia.

We welcome the republication of our content. Please credit the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

Philanthropic and government support

CDP is tracking organizations that are responding. We are also in contact with and can grant to organizations that are not 501(c)3 entities.

In January 2022, CDP announced four grants from the CDP Disaster Recovery Fund to address U.S. humanitarian crises:

  • The UndocuBlack Network received $100,000 to provide policy and legal support for Black immigrants and refugees seeking a life in the United States. They will work with network partners to provide resources and to advocate for change within the United States immigration policies, seeking inclusive rights, steeped in racial justice.
  • The Transgender Law Center’s “Border Butterflies Project” received a $150,000 grant. This program supports LGBTQ+ migrants at the United States’ southern border and within the U.S. in response to their specific and often extreme marginalization. TLC provides legal and humanitarian assistance and connects LGBTQ+ migrants with local resources like healthcare, mental healthcare, and legal and social services.
  • Addressing the needs of unaccompanied minors arriving from Afghanistan and through the southern border of the United States is a critical mission. Through a $150,000 grant, KIND will expand its capacity to provide legal representation and reunification for children and their families. It will advocate for policy changes to improve the reunification process overall.
  • A $200,000 grant from CDP allows the Black Alliance for Just Immigration – BAJI to support Black migrants, immigrants and refugees entering the U.S. through the southern border with seeking asylum or other immigration needs. They also provide other humanitarian relief services as needed.

Hispanics in Philanthropy has a Migration program which “seeks to advance justice and protect the rights and conditions for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees throughout the US, Latin America and the Caribbean. HIP, with frontline organizations and migrant leaders, collectively address the root causes and often destabilizing impacts of migration as it is currently experienced by focusing on building power in our communities.”

From 2018-2021, they provided $14 million in funding to 110 migrant frontline organizations impacting more than 560,000 families. Their funding includes organizations working at the U.S.-Mexico border and in sending communities. The following are a sampling of the organizations they have funded:

  • HIP provided a $25,000 grant in July 2022 to Casa del Migrante de Matamoros, a nonprofit, Catholic-inspired organization that promotes and defends the human rights of migrants and refugees in Mexico.
  • Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center (El Paso) provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees in West Texas and New Mexico. Las Américas provides legal representation through attorneys and accredited representatives through the Department of Justice. They received a $40,000 general support and operating grant from January 2023 to January 2024.
  • Casa del Migrante de Reynosa was given a $50,000 grant running from May 2022 to May 2024. The organization offers a dignified and safe place to migrants (deportees and humanitarian asylum seekers) who pass through the city of Reynosa, providing free basic services during their stay, such as: food, clothing, personal hygiene items, phone calls, medical care, psychological care, processing of some personal documents, etc.), and promoting their dignity, their family reunification and their social reintegration.
  • Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción (Ciudad Juárez) is an organization that works under the principle of equality and non-discrimination. Its work is based on two areas: migrants and LGBTTTIQ+ population. In the area of migrants, DHIA has solid work in defense of the human rights of adults in transit, detention and repatriation conditions, as well as children and adolescents, border migrants, in transit and applicants for refugee status. HIP provided a two year (June 2022 to June 2024) $100,000 general support and operating grant.
  • Pastoral de la Movilidad Humana, Honduras promotes protagonism, citizen participation and defense of the human rights of people in mobility and advocacy with the government to obtain public policies for the common good, participating in the construction of a just, supportive and fraternal society. They received a two-year general support and operating grant of $70,000 from March 2021 to March 2023.
  • Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación – Radio Progreso (ERIC – RP) Honduras received a $60,000 general support and operating grant from September 2021 to September 2023. ERIC – RP works to guarantee and protect the human rights of migrants and forcibly displaced persons in situations of vulnerability with advocacy, awareness-raising and strategic alliances.

Philanthropic Strategies to Support Refugees and Asylum Seekers, a Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees report, examined the actions of 10 different philanthropies and put forward several suggestions for addressing critical needs:

  • “Encourage innovation and adaptation in volatile times. Think systemically and creatively.
  • Explore the benefits of collective grantmaking.
  • Take a holistic approach to addressing the needs of newcomer populations.
  • Enhance existing support to grantees by reevaluating grant requirements.
  • Leverage foundations’ bully pulpit, stature, and convening power.”


See them all



Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their home countries because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Many refugees are in exile to escape the effects of natural or human-made disasters.

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

CHEs involve an acute emergency layered over ongoing instability. Multiple scenarios can cause CHEs, like the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the man-made political crisis in Venezuela, or the public health crisis in Congo.

Women and Girls in Disasters

Women and Girls in Disasters

Pre-existing, structural gender inequalities mean that disasters affect women and girls in different ways than they affect boys and men. The vulnerability of females increases when they are in a lower socioeconomic group.