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Commemorating the 40-Year Anniversary of the Refugee Act and the Establishment of ORR


By Jonathan Hayes, Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement

Forty years ago, the Refugee Act was signed into law, formally establishing the federal refugee resettlement program and creating the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF). While the program has seen many changes over the years, including various fluctuations in arrivals and an expansion of populations under ORR’s authority, ORR has remained flexible and committed to responding to many diverse humanitarian needs and situations.

Our office’s mission has progressively expanded to include asylees, foreign-born victims of human trafficking, Cuban and Haitian entrants, Iraqi and Afghani special immigrants, survivors of torture and unaccompanied alien children. Through our changes ORR has consistently carried out our mission to help all new arrivals—quickly assisting them to become self-sufficient and integrated members of their new communities—as they seek a new beginning in the United States.

As I have learned about the many notable achievements over the past four decades, there are several that demonstrate ORR’s agility to adapt to meet its mission. First and foremost, throughout its history, ORR has welcomed refugees from all over the world. From the initial days of the office, when it responded to the historic level of Indochinese refugees, to assisting those fleeing the former Soviet Union, ORR has served refugees from more than 70 countries, including significant consecutive fiscal year arrival patterns from Bosnia, Haiti, Cuba, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bhutan and, more recently, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Specific responses of note include one effort in 1999, where ORR adeptly coordinated emergency processing operations in Fort Dix, New Jersey, to facilitate evacuees from Kosovo. Over 4,000 Kosovar refugees were processed and resettled in the U.S. in a short period of time.

We certainly can’t forget, beginning in 2001, ORR, through its extensive public-private partnership network, quickly responded to welcome the “Lost Boys” Sudanese youth to the United States. Those without adult siblings or other relatives were placed in the unaccompanied refugee minors program. These former pastoralists, many who required greater orientation services than other refugees and had experienced high-levels of trauma, were successfully integrated. One even made the U.S. Olympic team and carried the U.S. flag at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

During the mid-2000s, ORR identified the Somali Bantu population, a minority ethnic group originally from Somalia, had a need for additional services in order to adapt to the American workplace and attain self-sufficiency. As a result, ORR was able to allocate special funding to provide culturally relevant services. Approximately 12,000 Somali Bantus are now living in the U.S., with about 3,000 in Lewiston, Maine.

A more recent illustration of ORR’s agility was when it had to pivot to accommodate a dramatic increase in referrals for the unaccompanied alien children program. Up until October 2011, ORR served fewer than 8,000 children annually; however, referrals increased to more than 13,000 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 and to over 59,000 in FY 2016. In FY 2019, program data indicates that ORR received 69,488 referrals, an increase of over 42 percent from the same time period in FY 2018.

As ORR was placing unaccompanied alien children with sponsors at historically high rates in the spring and summer of 2019, staff worked diligently to expand ORR’s bed capacity to ensure that it could keep pace with referrals and strengthened its operational processes. These changes allowed our office to effectively meet our legally-mandated goals of ensuring the safe and timely release of children in our custody while prioritizing family unification. ORR currently has approximately 195 unaccompanied alien children care-provider facilities and programs in 23 states. The important work happening in each of these facilities and programs around the country—work ORR has done successfully since early 2003 when the unaccompanied alien children program came to ORR—takes an experienced team of competent, hardworking men and women dedicated to the welfare of the children.

In commemoration of ORR’s accomplishments, ACF Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson recently remarked to me, “ACF/HHS and the entire ORR network should be proud of what we have and continue to achieve every day to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.”

The critical services we have and continue to provide are meant to bridge the gap for those resilient men, woman, and children, looking to transform their lives here in the U.S. I’m truly honored to lead such a dynamic team in this storied tradition. Forty years of changing lives: now that is an accomplishment worthy of reflection.

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