17 minute read 19 January 2023

Effective refugee resettlement strategies for state and local governments

States and local communities play a critical role in resettling refugees throughout the United States. What leading practices can they learn from each other?

Lori Scialabba

Lori Scialabba

United States

Ninaad Dave

Ninaad Dave

United States

Ariana Collas

Ariana Collas

United States

John O'Leary

John O'Leary

United States

Margaret Hodson

Margaret Hodson

United States

Effectively resettling refugees is always a challenge. Given the unforeseeable nature of global conflict, climate disruption, and political upheaval, the necessity to successfully resettle refugees can arise unexpectedly.1

With the federal government announcing its intent to resettle up to 125,000 refugees for FY23,2 pressure may continue to rise on the state agencies and local communities responsible for helping refugees smoothly integrate into society and become self-sufficient. The federal government’s announced refugee admission target of 125,000 is significantly higher than the 25,465 refugees resettled in FY22.3 Though the federal government provides support to resettle these refugees through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), it relies extensively on state and local partners to make these efforts successful.4

In recent years, the nation’s resettlement infrastructure, which relies heavily on nonprofit resettlement agencies and other community connections such as relationships with landlords, has been reduced as a result of lower refugee admissions.5 Making the refugee resettlement ecosystem more efficient will become increasingly critical if the number of incoming refugees rises.

States have the freedom to experiment with different strategies to address common problems based on each state’s unique context and resources. This applies to many realms of public policy, and certainly to refugee resettlement, where each state has its own variety of programs. To become more effective, the country’s current patchwork of refugee resettlement programs has an opportunity to learn from each other’s successful practices. Meeting new resettlement goals demands strategic reforms, be they organizational, technological, or workforce related.

The federal government determines refugee policy and funding, a network of designated nonprofits play a key go-between role, and local communities become refugees’ homes. But state governments—each with uniquely different constraints, demands, and methods of implementation—are at the center of the resettlement ecosystem. To explore the current resettlement landscape, we gathered input from state refugee coordinators (SRCs) and other key stakeholders. Their input clarified state governments’ complex role in the resettlement process—and helped us understand what all states may need to consider bolstering their programs. States use a wide variety of resettlement approaches—and while each state policy environment is distinct, there are successful approaches that could benefit all. The federal program’s unusually flexible structure, based on working with nine resettlement agencies,6 can leave SRCs less connected to their counterparts across state lines than is the case with other government programs. The sharing of experience, then, is particularly critical to success as challenges multiply.

SRCs and other state and local actors may want to consider several key strategic approaches:

  • Make creative use of federal and state funding. States that are struggling with funding can make dollars go further by tapping into available funding pools in creative ways.
  • Review models and partnerships as agility becomes more important. States can choose how best to approach resettlement in their communities. In a rapidly shifting environment, state agencies need to be agile in adapting to new circumstances, regularly revisiting decisions about how to meet their mission.
  • Enhance case management and data-sharing. Accurate, timely information about refugees seeking services and the resources available in various locations and other potential service providers is critical to making effective resettlement decisions and ensuring successful resettlement. State refugee resettlement programs can learn from counterparts that have built more robust case management systems and have broken down data silos that prevent optimal case management.7
  • Integrate human service delivery with local communities. It can be difficult to bring together the wide array of services available to refugees across state, federal, and non-governmental resources. Integrating case management as much as possible is essential for states to keep closely connected to multiple resources, particularly as staff turnover levels can lead to crucial institutional knowledge being lost.

Who qualifies as a refugee?

People seeking to enter the United States fall into several different categories, including officially designated refugees, traditional immigrants who may have spent years on waitlists, workers on general or specialized visas, asylum-seekers, and undocumented economic migrants.

This article deals only with the resettlement of officially recognized refugees.

The State Department defines refugee as “an alien who, generally, has experienced past persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Since 1980, the United States has admitted more than 3.1 million refugees.8

Government officials often make refugee determinations while an individual is still outside the United States, meaning they enter the country already bearing a refugee designation, while others arrive seeking asylum.9 Recent announcements of higher federal targets suggest that the number of refugees will likely rise in coming years.10 It is noteworthy that in addition to refugees, in some cases, groups of individuals are admitted under extraordinary circumstances—for instance, in the summer of 2021, a whole-of-government effort including the ORR11 relocated some 68,000 Afghans under Operation Allies Welcome.12

Make creative use of federal and state funding

States receive funding to assist in resettlement efforts. But these resources can arrive with little notice. The community infrastructure might not necessarily be ready for unexpected surges of refugees. States’ ready capacity for handling influxes of people often lags behind the arrival announcements—as one SRC told us, “A lot of dollars in resettlement follow refugees.”

States can tap into a range of resources—if they can locate them. It begins with the ORR, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services tasked with overseeing a distributed resettlement system. With a small staff and FY23 annual budget of roughly US$1.8 billion,13 the ORR works mainly through partnerships and collaborations, disbursing funds to federal agencies, states, and nonprofits to provide cash assistance, medical, and social services.14

For just-arrived refugees, resettlement programs receive federal funding for immediate services such as airport pickup, housing, training, cultural orientation, and school enrollment.15 But this funding covers only the first three months, a point at which many refugees haven’t yet achieved self-sufficiency. To help with the next few months, the ORR’s Matching Grant program encourages community donations of goods and services.16 The program is a public/private partnership enabling communities to become directly involved in supporting refugees through donations, volunteer support, and mentorship. Grant recipients agree to match ORR direct client assistance funding with cash and in-kind contributions of goods and services from the community at a rate of US$1 for every US$2 in federal funding.17 Some states have bolstered resettlement programs with alternative, diversified funding streams less reliant on federal sources tied to refugee numbers.

For example, Utah’s Refugee Services Office tapped federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to help create a robust case management system that serves its refugee population. Many refugees with children are eligible for TANF benefits, and Utah was able to use some of these funds to build a system enabling it to do more analysis and identify more service gaps than is typical in other states. The ORR provides additional funding needed to cover the system’s costs.18

States and local communities may be able to use other federal funding sources to enhance refugee resettlement, including American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funding, the CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program, and a range of grant-making federal agencies, particularly those aimed at funding emergency preparedness efforts. During the resettlement of Afghans as part of 2021’s Operation Allies Welcome, Oregon’s legislature approved US$18 million in resettlement support from the state’s Office of Resilience and Emergency Management.19

The key to making it work: creativity and information-sharing. Knowing the types of strategies that contemporaries across state lines are pursuing can expand horizons for funding sources.

Review models and partnerships as agility becomes more important

It is likely that the State Department will ask states and resettlement agencies to resettle more refugees in the coming months and years, necessitating rapid mobilization of support resources. Given the unpredictable nature of the events that create refugees, states are required to be ready to support an unexpected influx of individuals with as little as a few days’ notice. This means that state agencies need to be agile.20

Across a host of applications, flexible and cross-functional teams have proven essential to allow organizations to quickly adapt to urgent challenges.21 States can look to incorporate these teams in helping people get housing, social services, or urgent health care.

Planning and preparedness for unexpected surges are key, and state and local entities can tap a range of federal resources, including the National Incident Management System22 and the National Response Framework.23

State and local governments have the freedom to experiment with different strategies. But when it comes to administering refugee programs—funding, partnerships, and more— there are three predominant models that states may choose from,24 a decision with real implications for how the state operationalizes its resettlement mission:

  • Traditional state-administered program. Most states use a state-administered model, with federal funds disbursed to a single state agency that focuses on integrating refugees into the labor market and communities.
  • Public-private partnerships. A few states opt to use public-private partnerships, in which state agency partners with one of the nine national nonprofit resettlement agencies to administer assistance while maintaining responsibility for policy and administrative supervision.
  • Replacement designee model. A handful of states use a replacement designee model, in which a state withdraws from administering all or part of the ORR funded Refugee Resettlement Program and ORR steps in to designate a separate entity other than the state government to provide refugee services within the state.25

Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages; there’s no one-size-fits-all model. Whatever a state’s current model, it makes sense for officials to evaluate alternatives, carefully considering which model allows for the most adaptive and successful resettlement.

Working within a traditional agency structure, as most states do, is centralized and comparatively easy for both federal and state entities to understand. Since employees have connections to other state offices, they can often effectively connect refugees to available state benefits and resources. For instance, Utah created the Utah Refugee Services Office in 2008 to coordinate and consolidate services, enabling it to directly access resources that are a part of the state’s Department of Workforce Services, including clinical social workers and the state’s employment system.26

On the other hand, as one SRC claimed, working within the bureaucracy that comes with acting as a state agency can sometimes compromise agility by adding layers of decision-making and slowing action when quick response is essential.

By contrast, the replacement designee model separates the resettlement function and the state bureaucracy. This doesn’t necessarily mean less engagement—though the division can create gaps in service. As one SRC noted, “I’m not in a state structure, so I don’t have quick connections to talk to the TANF office or Medicaid, because I’m not housed in the proximity of those departments.” Another SRC reported difficulties in refugee access to benefits such as foster care and tuition assistance.

The advantage: public-private partnerships and replacement designee structures can be leaner and more flexible—as long as leaders emphasize and facilitate connectivity. For instance, Kentucky refugee staffers actively foster relationships with state agencies, working closely with policymakers and agencies to collaborate on integrated service provision. And the Kentucky Office for Refugees—an ORR-designated department of Catholic Charities of Louisville—can make program changes within a few months, compared to six months or more for some state-run programs, due to a streamlined approval process with fewer layers of oversight and management.27 In FY 2020 and 2021, Kentucky resettled a total of 1,122 refugees, more per capita than any other state.28

“We are unique because we can be nimbler than a state structure. We don’t have the bureaucratic systems over us like in a state structure. We can be more nimble in our responses by coming up with new programs or ways of bringing on new partners.” —SRC using the replacement designee model

Enhance decision-making through better case management and data-sharing

For state officials, agreeing to resettle refugees is only the first step. Effective resettlement—safely integrating people into local communities and helping them achieve self-sufficiency—involves robust case management. Agencies and case managers need rich, up-to-date data, and making that happen requires strong technology and data infrastructure. So that’s where states need to begin: assessing their existing infrastructure and shoring up weak spots.

“We realized that we had anecdotal data but not hard data. That is crippling. We wanted to be able to know the story and articulate the narrative in ways that you could add metrics. How will you improve if you don’t know what you are trying to improve?” —SRC (Arizona)

Since 2015, Arizona has used a data system to meticulously track refugee funding from the ORR and other sources; analytics have helped with long-term program planning and forecasting future resettlement capacity. The system, communicating regularly with the ORR, has been able to quickly spot resource discrepancies and shortfalls between federal funding and local agency needs.

State and local governments can boost their odds of successful resettlement by investing in technology platforms that host community information exchanges. These online, publicly accessible platforms aim to pull together the various refugee resources within a given geographic region—with material on housing, health care services, legal representation, and more—and keep the information current for referrals.29 Case managers no longer need to rely on personal connections to continually, manually update their resource lists, and the common resource can free up their time to give more attention to individual cases.

In 2015, the Toronto social service agency WoodGreen Community Services created an online platform called HOME—the Housing Opportunities and Marketplace Exchange—with constantly updated information on housing, goods, and services for those in need. Originally targeted specifically toward refugees, the platform has expanded to support other underserved groups such as veterans and people experiencing homelessness, improving outcomes for both clients and the government agencies serving them.30

Unfortunately, information is often siloed among different state entities and local resettlement agencies, as well as the federal agencies that begin the process of bringing refugees into the country. With providers acting autonomously and building their own networks, case managers often struggle to maintain up-to-date resource guides for their clients. Staff cuts and turnover in recent years, with resettlement agencies losing institutional knowledge, exacerbate the problem.

“With the Afghan situation and all the different immigration statuses—different stamps, different eligibility—we have had to do a lot of training and passing along of information from federal partner to federal partner, and to share with our local health and human services agency, because they aren’t in the loop.” —SRC

Utah—the only state that mandates two full years of case management support for vulnerable refugees31—built a system that enables case managers to do more analysis and identify gaps in service. The Refugee Services Office’s system tracks employment, housing, community support services, English fluency, and life skills outcomes from arrival through the first few years of resettlement. It also connects refugees to resources and services that have demonstrated success in improving integration outcomes.32 In 2019, the program administered an outcomes-based assessment for refugees who had received two years of case management services and found that “92% of assessed refugees, 18 years or older, show[ed] improvement in employment outcomes and 100% live in safe and affordable housing.”33

Utah’s resettlement methods deserve plaudits, but other states—with unique populations, constraints, demands, and methods of implementation—may or may not find its structure and execution applicable. As one SRC told us, “Each state would probably have a slightly different story to tell you about their resettlement program.” The important point for state officials and providers is to be aware of and willing to consider adapting other states’ leading practices.

“My ultimate dream is that we’ve created programs that weave in mainstream programs and providers so that our clients integrate better and quicker and have more solid roots.” —SRC

Benchmarking and fresh thinking can foster new solutions and generate better outcomes for state governments, local communities, and most critically, for refugees themselves, whom agencies can look to move beyond mere self-sufficiency to sustainable livelihoods, strong community ties, and participation in civil society. Sharing data, comparing experiences, and identifying best practices is key to improving refugee resettlement across all 50 states.

One big challenge for states is easily accessing data that can help benchmark performance. Because states have the flexibility to shape their resettlement efforts, the defined success measures can be amorphous. After all, every newly relocated family’s situation is different. As a result, state agencies and local organizations may well end up with a patchwork of information ill-suited to identifying and comparing effective strategies. The data difficulties highlight the importance of communication between agencies.34

Improve the resettlement experience by integrating human service delivery with local communities

At the end of the day, refugees will plant roots and begin new lives in local communities. And no state, or agency, can make successful integration a reality on its own. To set new arrivals on the path toward safe, financially independent lives in an unfamiliar country, leaders need to leverage the power of collective impact: “The commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.”35 To the extent possible, citizens, service providers, and local governments should work toward the same goal.

“I also worked for FEMA, and I believe refugee resettlement should be defined first by: What is the crisis? What are you facing at this moment in time? A lot of things are special and temporal. There are times when you have to change the paradigm and do things differently.” —SRC (Arizona)

With refugee resettlement, the collective impact process looks to expand agency capabilities by creating partnerships with community members and service providers, engaging experts, and helping educate the community. Processes should aim to include a broad range of stakeholders, addressing people’s immediate needs (landlords, employers and employment services, ESL services, offices handling school registration and social security), short-term needs (transportation, immigration and legal services, adult education, child care), and long-term needs (college readiness programs, librarians, mental health providers, local farmer’s markets accepting SNAP).36 Agencies can tap the expertise of faith-based groups, business leaders, schools and universities, and other actors outside the nonprofit space.

Building trust through strong communication is key. One SRC emphasized that their agency’s collective impact process focuses on breaking down local barriers, getting people to recognize that new refugees will eventually be fully participatory community members. Community relations—establishing, sustaining, and deepening relationships and lines of communication with local stakeholders—can be critical in building broad acceptance for refugees.

“We have a robust volunteer program for citizens to connect with refugees and help them integrate into the greater community. If you don’t get the community to value the differences and befriend people, it won’t work.” —SRC (Utah)

State and local governments can coordinate collective impact processes in collaboration with nonprofits, allowing government actors an important opportunity to lead resettlement efforts. In Aurora, Colorado, the city’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs engaged relevant city departments to align policy while consulting community leaders on social, faith-based, and housing topics. The office surveyed community sentiment and held meetings and focus groups to create an open dialogue. The process resulted in community support around activities such as creating organizations to develop immigrant and refugee leaders, expanding ESL and adult education programs, involving immigrant and refugee populations in community policing, and developing trainings on cultural awareness and startup businesses.37

“It’s important to have a refugee center. Our office is a place where refugee community organizations can meet, train, and conduct workshops that are funded with grants we give them. When refugees no longer have a case manager, they can come to the community organizations—or come here.” —SRC (Utah)

Learning from each other and looking ahead

As states prepare to meet new resettlement expectations, officials and service providers may wish to replicate best practices where applicable and when possible. Agencies should look to experiment and adjust methods, bringing together coalitions, to meet the needs of both refugees and their new communities.

Successes can range from small wins such as finding new funding pools to larger wins such as refashioning a resettlement program structure to be flexible and nimble in times of crisis. Understanding the issues, and the metrics, is key. As one SRC told us, “To really help refugees, we need to have a better diagnosis of what the need is—and what is successful resettlement.” The bottom line: Assessing practices from other states can permeate good ideas and foster new solutions, leading to better outcomes for refugees, state governments, and local communities.

  1. Kathryn Reid, “Forced to flee: Top countries refugees are coming from,” World Vision, July 22, 2022; Tetsuji Ida, “Climate refugees—the world’s forgotten victims,” World Economic Forum, June 18, 2021; Al Jazeera, “‘We are refugees’: Russians flee rising authoritarianism,” March 8, 2022.

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  2. The White House, “Memorandum on Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2023,” September 27, 2022.

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  3. Refugee Processing Center, Admissions & Arrivals, “Refugee Admissions Report as of November 30, 2022 ,” accessed on December 19, 2022.

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  4. Stacey A. Shaw et al., “Understanding successful refugee resettlement in the US,” Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 34, Issue 4, January 26, 2021.

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  5. Julie Watson, “Broken by Trump, US refugee program aims to return stronger,” AP news, January 27, 2021.

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  6. The US government has designated nine national nonprofit resettlement agencies to work with states and local communities: Church World Services, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Hebrew International Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and World Relief. Regional nonprofit agencies also work with states, particularly as replacement designees. See: Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Resettlement agencies,” December 9, 2019.View in Article
  7. Lori Scialabba et al., Smart refugee resettlement: Using technology to transform the resettlement process, Deloitte Insights, January 13, 2021.View in Article
  8. US Department of State, “U.S. refugee admissions,” accessed October 20, 2022; US Department of State, “U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,”accessed October 20, 2022.View in Article
  9. Per the Department of Homeland Security, “An asylee is a person who meets the definition of refugee and is already present in the United States or is seeking admission at a port of entry. Refugees are required to apply for Lawful Permanent Resident (“green card”) status one year after being admitted, and asylees may apply for green card status one year after their grant of asylum.” See: Department of Homeland Security, “Refugee and Asylees” accessed December 12, 2022.View in Article
  10. Julie Watson, “Biden keeps US target for refugee admissions at 125,000,” Associated Press, September 27, 2022.

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  11. Cindy Huang, “Operation Allies Welcome: A health care success story,” Office of Refugee Resettlement, January 25, 2022.View in Article
  12. Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, and Adam Kemp, “Tens of thousands of Afghans have resettled across the U.S. Now, the challenge is making a home,” PBS, February 3, 2022; US Department of Homeland Security, “Operation Allies Welcome announces departure of all Afghan nationals from the National Conference Center Safe Haven in Leesburg, VA,” September 27, 2022.

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  13. White House, “FY 2023 continuing resolution (CR) appropriations issues,” September 2, 2022.View in Article
  14. Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Collaborations & partnerships,” August 19, 2022.View in Article
  15. US Department of State, “Reception and placement;” HIAS, “Refugee resettlement core services,” accessed October 5, 2022.View in Article
  16. Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Voluntary Agencies Matching Grant Program,” June 10, 2022.View in Article
  17. Ibid.

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  18. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Policy basics: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,” March 1, 2022; Ilham Dehry and Sarah Knowles, “States can use TANF’s flexibility to extend cash assistance for families in need,” Urban Institute, March 24, 2022.

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  19. Ed Flick, “ODHS Office of Resilience & Emergency Management: Presentation to the House Interim Committee on Veterans and Emergency Management,” January 12, 2022.View in Article
  20. Ghassan Turqieh, Hanna Aoun, and Elie Nasr, “Agile in the public sector,” Deloitte, spring 2018.

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  21. Gerald C. Kane et al., “Teaming your way through disruption,” Deloitte Insights, October 26, 2021.View in Article
  22. FEMA, “National Incident Management System,” September 26, 2022.View in Article
  23. FEMA, “National Response Framework,” October 15, 2021.View in Article
  24. Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Annual Report to Congress,” FY2018, February 28, 2021. The 2018 annual report is the latest available.View in Article
  25. Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Replacement designees,” March 1, 2022.View in Article
  26. Utah Workforce Services, “About the Refugee Service Office,” accessed October 20, 2022.View in Article
  27. Kentucky Office for Refugees, “Our role,” accessed October 5, 2022.View in Article
  28. Nayla Rush, “Refugee resettlement roundup for FY 2020,” Center for Immigration Studies, October 6, 2020; Rush, “FY 2021 refugee resettlement roundup,” Center for Immigration Studies, November 18, 2021.View in Article
  29. For instance, see Carley Thompson, “Building a community information exchange,” King County Department of Community & Human Services, October 16, 2020.View in Article
  30. Mahesh Kelkar et al., “Addressing homelessness with data analytics,” Deloitte Insights, September 25, 2019.View in Article
  31. Coby Vail, “Refugee resettlement in Utah: Lessons on community and religious engagement,” Berkley Forum, November 24, 2020.

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  32. Board of Advisors for the Utah Refugee Services Office, “Report to the governor,” December 1, 2021.View in Article
  33. Ibid.View in Article
  34. Lori Scialabba et al., “Smart refugee resettlement: Using technology to transform the resettlement process,” Deloitte Insights, January 13, 2021.View in Article
  35. John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011. Also see Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania, and Mark Kramer, “Channeling change: Making collective impact work,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, January 26, 2012.

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  36. Deloitte, “Community engagement guide: Refugee community of interest,” 2022.View in Article
  37. City of Aurora Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, “Immigrant Integration Plan (2020–2030 findings report,” December 2, 2020; Police Executive Research Forum, “Community Policing in Immigrant Neighborhoods: Stories of Success,” 2019.

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The authors would like to thank Glynis Rodrigues from the Center for Government Insights for her contributions to this article. They also thank Leslie Roe for helping in coordinating the interviews conducted while drafting this report.

Cover image by: Sofia Sergi

Deloitte Government & Public Services

Deloitte Government & Public Services is committed to improving public outcomes through a focus on people. At Deloitte, we think about the complex issues facing the public sector and develop relevant, timely, and sustainable solutions for our clients.

Lori Scialabba

Lori Scialabba

Specialist Executive


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