Path to Resettlement

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is a person who is outside of his or her country and is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution due to:

  • Race;
  • Religion;
  • Nationality;
  • Social Group; or
  • Political Opinion.


How does a refugee come to the United States?

There is a very long and thorough process that a person must complete before they are allowed into the United States.

The below information is also available in user-friendly two-page document or infographic.


  • Refugee-Journey.jpgAnnually, the President works with Congress to determine the authorized target for refugee admissions.
  • The federal Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) manages the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program through contracts with nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) overseas, and nine national Resettlement Agencies in the United States.
  • RSCs ensure that refugees are approved for resettlement to the U.S. by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
  • In Wisconsin, refugees are received by local resettlement agencies. These agencies help refugees connect with services and become a part of their local communities.


Inside the US

The Department of State works through national refugee resettlement agencies (Voluntary Agencies or VOLAGs for short). These include the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the Ethiopian Community Development Council. Together, these organizations determine where refugees are relocated within the US.

The national organizations work with local affiliates to resettle the refugees in local communities—the local affiliate (for example, Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities or International Institute) tell their national agency (VOLAG) whether they will agree to resettle refugees locally. They estimate how many refugees the local area can resettle. If no local affiliate or VOLAG chooses to resettle refugees to a community, then no refugee will be resettled in that community.


Resettlement Agency (affiliate) in WI

Parent VOLAG (national organization)

International Institute of Wisconsin

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services

World Relief Fox Valley

World Relief

Jewish Social Services

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society               

Multicultural Community Center

Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)

Catholic Charities of Green Bay United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)


Once the refugee is permitted to travel, the local resettlement affiliate meets them on arrival and is responsible for certain initial services and referrals intended to facilitate their transition to a new community. The VOLAG receives special funding from the federal government to support the first 90 days of resettlement activity. These activities include finding adequate housing, getting basic food, clothing and supplies, assessing employability, accessing English as a Second Language classes and school enrollment for children, starting the process of securing employment, and registering for any public benefits for which they may be eligible.

Upon arrival, refugees are considered legal permanent residents and authorized for employment, and after five years may choose to apply for citizenship. Once a refugee does become a citizen, the refugee is no longer eligible for refugee programs funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

As a general rule, each state is funded to operate the office of the state refugee coordinator which is the single point of contact for all refugee services within that state and is responsible for overseeing and developing all possible programs and services for refugees so as to enable refugees to achieve economic and personal self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.

Typically, states receive funds based on the refugee population in the state. States can also compete for more program funding.

Usually this state office awards this funding to local resettlement agencies for to provide ongoing support for refugees in each community. This may also include mutual assistance associations (MAA), ethnic community based organizations, non-profit social service organizations and so on. In Wisconsin, Catholic Charities of Green Bay and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, International Institute of Wisconsin, World Relief, and Jewish Social Services are all actively resettling local affiliates.

See our Programs page for more details.

Wisconsin’s Refugee Population

  • The first refugees to arrive to Wisconsin were Hmong from Laos in the 1970s, which brings the total number of refugees resettled in Wisconsin to over 75,000. Since the year 2000, over 16,000 refugees have been resettled in the state of Wisconsin from 50 different countries. Since 2000, around two thirds of arriving refugees have been resettled in Milwaukee County, though there are resettlement and partner agencies scattered throughout the state. After the Hmong population, some of the largest refugee groups living in Wisconsin include Burmese, Somali, Bosnian, and Iraqi.
  • Today, the majority of refugees in Wisconsin have achieved economic self-sufficiency—working and contributing to our communities!
  • The Refugee Program Section, on behalf of the State of Wisconsin, manages and monitors contracts for programs that are designed to assist refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency and social self-reliance. Direct services are provided by partner agencies and include employment and supportive services (such as health screenings, English as a Second Language instruction, family-focused case management).

See partner agencies page for more detail about current partner agencies in Wisconsin.