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Iowa Department of Health and Human Services

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a refugee?

A refugee is a person who has fled their country of nationality or habitual residence because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. The term refugee does not include any person who was involved or participated in the persecution of any persons on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?

Refugees are persons who have fled their country or origin due to fear of persecution. Immigrants are persons who voluntarily leave their country of origin for any number of reasons. Refugees and immigrants have different legal status in the United States. For more information on U.S. policy towards refugees and immigrants, visit the Department of Homeland Security website at

What services does the Bureau of Refugee Services provide to refugees?

Through arrangements with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we are able to provide a wide range of services to refugees. These include employment services, case management services and a wide variety of other social services. For more information visit the Services webpage.

Where do most refugees that resettle in Iowa come from?

Over the years, refugees have come to Iowa from many different countries. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, refugees came primarily from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In the 1990s, we continued to see refugees from Southeast Asia and also began seeing large numbers of refugees from Eastern European countries including Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and the former Soviet Union. The number of refugees from various African countries, in particular form the Sudan, also began to increase. Beginning in 2006 the arrival of Burmese and Iraqi refugees began. In 2008 the first of the refugees from Bhutan began.

Do refugees pay taxes?

Yes. Refugees are subject to the same employment, property, sales, and other taxes as any U.S. citizen. Refugees cannot vote, however.

Do refugees receive special money from the U.S. Government to purchase homes, cars and other items?

The U.S. Government does not provide refugees with money when they arrive in the U.S. However, there are minimal benefits available for emergency situations and the medically needy. Refugees must apply for these benefits and meet income and resource standards to qualify for any assistance.

Do refugees come to the United States for economic reasons?

Refugees are individuals or families who have come to the U.S. because they were forced to flee their homeland, many times with little or no belongings. They leave family and friends behind and are unable to return. Most refugees would rather live and work in their community in their native country.

Is the United States the only country to accept refugees?

No. There are 24 countries worldwide participating in refugee resettlement. The major resettlement countries include:  Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States.

What do refugees contribute to society?

Refugees contribute a great deal to this country through the sharing of their talents, skills, cultures and customs. History demonstrates that refugees and immigrants have made significant contributions to the U.S. Refugees also pay taxes.

Do refugees represent any health hazards to the American public?

There are refugees who have health problems which area a result of the lack of medical care that existed in their country of origin or due to problems they encountered during their flight from persecution. Most health problems are addressed by health care services in first-asylum camps and in refugee processing centers before refugees are admitted to the United States. The Centers for Disease Control closely monitors all admissions and prevents the admission of certain persons with health conditions identified as hazardous to the public until they are treated and no longer considered to be infectious.

Are refugees a drain on the welfare system?

Since Governor Robert Ray started the refugee resettlement program in Iowa, the resettlement philosophy has been that refugees must become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. The Bureau of Refugee Services focuses on placing refugees into jobs that promote economic independence, generate tax dollars and help local economies. The use of welfare-type funds is on a short-term basis.

For comparison purposes, the average Iowan who receives Family Investment Program (FIP) assistance receives benefits for approximately 28 months. The average refugee who is resettled in Iowa that receives FIP assistance receives benefits for less than 6.5 months.

Who is a Refugee?

A refugee is a person who has been interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and has been authorized to come to the United States permanently. They are unable or unwilling to seek the protection of their country of nationality because of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Refugees have a vast array of skills, education and experience. They are highly motivated, productive and hardworking.

Refugees Are Work Authorized

Refugees are authorized to work upon arrival in the United States. Once a refugee has obtained a social security card, he or she may obtain employment. A refugee does NOT need to obtain an Employment Authorization Card (Form 1-776). Once a refugee has been in the United States for one year, the refugee may apply for a Permanent Resident Alien Card.

English proficiency level varies among refugees. The Bureau can work with employers to find creative ways to overcome the language barrier.

Refugee Services (Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
1-800-362-2780 (Toll Free) 
515-344-3675 (Des Moines Area)
If you are an employer with job opportunities and are looking to hire good, reliable workers, please call 515-875-5615. See how the Bureau of Refugee Services may be able to meet your needs.