In response to the migrant crisis unfolding in Europe, President Obama announced Thursday that the United States will take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. This is a modest sum compared to the size of the current problem, which numbers in the millions. Germany alone expects to receive 800,000 refugee and asylum applications this year.
But for the United States. which has been capping the number of incoming refugees at 70,000 per year, 10,000 Syrians is a big deal. Where will they all go? Anywhere, actually.
The State Department works with placement agencies — non-profits like the International Rescue Committee or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — and local communities to find new homes for refugees. Between October 2014 and August 2015, they placed about 1,300 Syrian refugees all over the country. Many settled in the larger states, like Texas (150), California (128), Michigan (139), and Illinois (111). But most states took in at least a few.
That’s how the system works: the 70,000 refugees are spread out across the entire nation. The agencies try to place people where they have family or friends, but otherwise, newcomers might find themselves anywhere from Alaska (which took 131 refugees in the past 11 months) to Mississippi (10 refugees), to North Dakota (419). Even Hawaii has received six refugees since October last year — five from Burma and one from China.
There are, of course, some refugee enclaves that have coalesced. For instance: of the 7,642 Somali refugees that came in since October, 911 of them ended up in Minnesota, where there is a thriving community of Somali immigrants thanks to the Lutheran Church, which started placing them there in the early 1990s. Now, it’s estimated that nearly a third of the Somali-born population in the U.S. live in Minnesota.
The nine placement agencies for refugees have some discretion where families end up. The decision also depends on where these agencies have connections, where they think refugees can get jobs, and where there are volunteers to help them integrate into their communities.
In recent years, the five most welcoming states (relative to their populations) are North and South Dakota, Idaho, Nebraska, and Vermont. Adding up the numbers from fiscal years 2013 and 2014, these states each received over 100 immigrants per 100,000 residents over the span of those two years.
Some of the least welcoming states are Montana, Wyoming, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Hawaii. Montana and Wyoming don’t seem to have received any immigrants in 2013 and 2014. Mississippi and Arkansas, both states with nearly three million residents, took 10 and 14 refugees, respectively.
One important note: “refugee” is a technical term that applies to people who apply for protected status from outside of the U.S. This can be a long and frustrating process. People fleeing crises in their home countries can also try to first come over on a tourist or business visa, and then apply to stay permanently — to seek asylum. These people aren’t considered refugees, bureaucratically speaking. Rather, they are counted separately, as asylum-seekers.
In 2013, the U.S. took about 70,000 refugees, mostly from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, and Somalia. It also took about 25,000 asylees, mostly from China, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nepal.