While focused on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and reviving the U.S. economy, President Joe Biden has also sought to restore U.S. leadership on a range of global issues. For example, Biden reversed the so-called “Muslim Ban” on his first day in office, along with several other executive orders related to immigration. The president also promised to admit up to 125,000 refugees into the United States this year and review the entire U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). These efforts fulfill a series of campaign promises, and signal that the United States is a welcoming place for immigrants and others fleeing persecution.
Such actions also represent a repudiation of President Trump’s restrictive and often harsh refugee and immigration policies. As important, they signal recognition of the global crisis of forced migration which has doubled over the past decade. Due to armed conflict, climate change, natural disaster, and political persecution, some 80 million people live as refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons. The overwhelming majority live in limbo in host countries already challenged to meet the needs of their own citizens/populations. Addressing the enormous scale of displaced people, 20 million of whom are refugees under protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), will require a global effort —but a renewed U.S. role represents an important policy change.
The destabilization of the refugee admissions program by Donald Trump over the past four years means that significantly increasing resettlement will be challenging. Successfully reviving USRAP following its near demise will be predicated on a strong public education campaign, reinstating support for the voluntary and state agencies which administer it, and considering alternative models, such as community sponsorship, to build public support and successfully integrate refugees into U.S. society.
Most Americans are unaware of the refugee resettlement program and the role it has played since the 1980s in protecting more than three million people from persecution on religious, political, or social grounds. A refugee under U.S. law is “a person fleeing his or her country 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.”
Traditionally after refugees have been selected by the UNHCR to be eligible for permanent resettlement and passed security checks by the U.S. government, refugees are placed in communities through local resettlement organizations and programs.
Resettlement organizations across the country provide basic supports for refugees through funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). This includes short-term cash and medical assistance, help securing housing, case management services, English as a Foreign Language classes, job readiness and employment placement to “facilitate refugees’ successful transition in the U.S., and help them attain self-sufficiency.”
Yet, under the Trump administration, more than one third of local resettlement agencies closed due to precipitous cuts in refugee admissions. According to a recent report on USRAP, these organizations have “suffered a loss in expertise, institutional knowledge, language diversity, and capacity.” Thus, “building back better” must be predicated on innovation and increased resources for national resettlement organizations, local agencies, and states. If we are to restore – and even expand – the U.S. refugee admissions program, support must come not only from our federal and state governments, but also from civil society actors including non-profit organizations and volunteers.
One promising approach to ramp up capacity for assisting more refugees would be to expand community involvement in the work of refugee resettlement, such as the work that New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) has been doing since 2015. Centering community-involvement in welcoming refugees has numerous benefits not only for refugees, but also for community members.
This approach builds on a history of sponsorship of refugees following World War II and further develops an experiment with “private sponsorship” from the Reagan administration. This model, which has flourished in Canada and Europe in the past decade, brings together community-based networks of volunteers under the guidance of resettlement organizations to find housing for refugees, and help them secure work, access education and health care, and create community connections.
Our research has shown that having resettlement organizations empower community teams to carry out the work of “case managers” benefits both refugees and communities by strengthening civic engagement, directly combating racism and xenophobia, and fostering integration of new immigrants within local communities.
Though the majority of refugees will continue to be supported by states in collaboration with national refugee resettlement organizations and their affiliates, further developing the community sponsorship model would enable the United States to accept an even greater number of refugees annually. A diversity of approaches to resettling refugees will enable significant expansion of this vital program. A 2016 proposal by the Urban Justice Center, International Refugee Assistance Project, and Human Rights First suggested that a separate quota for “privately-sponsored” refugees could be part of the annual presidential determination of resettlement numbers.
We call on the Biden administration to increase resettlement to 150,000 refugees annually – levels achieved only for a brief period during the Carter and Reagan administrations – through enhancing community sponsorship nation-wide. This, in turn, will demonstrate a renewed U.S. commitment to helping the world’s most vulnerable displaced persons find refuge. As importantly, promoting community sponsorship of refugees through volunteer networks can strengthen democracy and foster inclusion of new immigrants within local communities.
Kathryn Libal, PhD, is the Director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut and Associate Professor of Social Work and Human Rights. Scott Harding, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work.