How are the decisions made where to place refugees geographically in the U.S.?

When Lobsang Yangphel won one of one thousand visas in an immigration lottery, he felt like the luckiest man in the world.

But at first, Yangphel, did not want to go. Over the previous three years, the Tibetan refugee had carved out a life for himself in Dharamsala, India, where he had been living since completing the journey that had taken him out of his homeland and away from the danger of political persecution. He barely spoke English and knew little about the United States.

Eventually Yangphel changed his mind. It is a decision he does not regret. He was resettled in Chicago and set up in an apartment on the North Side near Truman College, along with other lottery winners.

The area has transformed into a vibrant Tibetan community.

“The place I lived, all of the Tibetans live by there,” Yangphel said.

The lottery was part of the Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project (TUSRP), made possible by a special provision in the Immigration Act of 1990. Tibetans were resettled in 18 cluster areas across the country, including Chicago.

The location of relatives and preexisting ethnic communities of that group are the primary criteria in deciding where in the United States to place a refugee. In fiscal year 2000, for example, California resettled large numbers of Vietnamese and Iranians, while New York resettled the largest numbers of refugees from the former USSR, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, according to the Migration Information Source. Florida took in more Cubans than all other states combined.

Other criteria include the availability of jobs, housing and social services. At the time of the TUSRP there were no significant Tibetan communities in the United States, only tiny pockets scattered throughout the country. So destinations for Tibetans like Yangphel were determined based on the number of sponsors in various cities who volunteered to help, according to Lhakpa Tsering, who works with the Tibetan Alliance of Chicago.

“It depends on the sponsor,” Tsering said. “They say, we can help 100 Tibetans in Chicago, for example. In the way of jobs, sponsors try to make sure that there is something.”

When he is not working his day job as an assembly leader at Ortho Seating Company, Yangphel teaches music and dance to children at the Chicago Tibetan Resettlement Project, later renamed the TAC. Two years ago, he led the effort to build a community center for the TAC.

Yangphel is happy he decided to come to the United States.

“There is more opportunity here,” he said.

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