Over the past four years, President Donald Trump and his administration worked tirelessly to dismantle the Refugee Act, a 40-year-old federal program that provided systematic and comprehensive resettlement provisions. In his last year in the White House, Trump’s administration had reduced the refugee resettlement admissions goal to 15,000 a year—a historic low, down from an average goal of 95,000 a year. Fast forward to the current administration, and the reality of America’s long-standing commitment to welcoming refugees remains uncertain. A few months after reinstating Trump’s low admission goal and immediately triggering a bipartisan blowback, President Biden finally raised the cap on refugee admission to 62,500. However, he made it clear that the United States is not likely to admit that many people.
Before I came to the United States as a refugee from Iraq in 2012, chatter and social media posts from recent arrivals and those in the resettlement process made it clear to me that the refugee resettlement program had some fundamental issues. There are horror stories of refugees getting evicted, not finding sufficient employment opportunities, and experiencing difficulties assimilating to host communities circulated among refugees. But it was not until I started working at a local Washington, D.C. resettlement agency that I realized why the U.S. refugee program had such a bad reputation.
What most Americans don’t understand is that regardless of who is the president and the dominant political party, the reality of refugee resettlement is one of many systematic gaps and missed opportunities. Since the 9/11 attacks, the refugee resettlement program underwent vigorous cycles of centralization and rigid monitoring and evaluation processes that often neglected the input of local communities, refugees themselves, and resettlement front-line workers. By looking at the past four years, we can deduce that without a robust institutional reform to administer the flow of global migration, any future administration could potentially override or even eliminate any progress to improving the resettlement program.
In my opinion, there are two critical points that the Biden administration needs to address in the upcoming years. First, the administration must reshape the federal model to encompass more community involvement. The existing refugee resettlement model relies almost solely on partnerships between the federal government and nine resettlement agencies (RAs) that form a network of affiliates across the country. Hence, the sponsoring agency takes on almost all responsibilities, from welcoming refugees at the airport, providing housing and financial support, facilitating integration, and much more. While most RAs work with volunteers and have some sort of community outreach and advocacy programs, the role of the local communities is often seen as a result of the limited financial resources of resettlement organizations. This federal model has siloed refugee organizations, created barriers between hosting communities and those involved in the resettlement process, and prevented possibilities to cultivate robust domestic support. With the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, the Biden administration must build on a more inclusive and sustainable approach to refugee resettlement.
In the process of redesigning the program, receiving communities should be given a more significant role in resettlement to ensure continued, robust support across the country. Social support from the host communities is an imperative component of resettlement plans. It allows host communities to interact with refugees, helping them access services more easily and facilitating a smooth transition to their local communities. Key stakeholders in the process include local government officials, religious organizations, healthcare providers, and other service organizations.
The critical role local communities can play in refugee resettlement became particularly apparent to me in 2016 while I was working as a caseworker. The growing number of Syrian refugees and increased anti-refugee rhetoric during the 2016 elections led many community groups, including local churches, mosques, synagogues, and private citizens, to increase collective action to help newly arrived families. Their services ranged from financial assistance and employment searches to cultural integration. Whereas these services are mandated by the cooperative agreement between RAs and the Department of State, the involvement of local community members has been proven to have a significant impact on refugees’ integration.
Unlike many other countries that have formalized the role of local communities in refugee resettlement, cooperative models have not been sufficiently leveraged in the U.S. resettlement program. In many refugee receiving countries like Canada and Germany, governments have created formalized local sponsorship programs whereby groups of people are contracted to provide the same services that resettlement organizations offer. For instance, the Canadian Sponsorship Program has helped resettle more than 300,000 refugees since 1978. Such partnerships have the potential to mobilize and expand grassroots bases to become powerful advocates for resettlement. Over time, this strategy could also facilitate a significant increase in the numbers of refugees resettled to the U.S. by bringing in additional resources that are not tied to the federal budget. The cooperation between local stakeholders and resettlement organizations provides dynamic ways to channel local interest and resources to more refugees across the United States. These alternatives also foster stronger community awareness of refugees, and the participatory nature of these programs creates a shared responsibility in making resettlement successful.
The second aspect the current administration needs to address is to improve information-sharing between international partners and domestic resettlement offices to eliminate logistical problems that most resettlement organizations encounter post refugee arrival. Currently, overseas screening and adjudication agencies do not provide sufficient information to resettlement agencies. For instance, most pre-arrival reports do not include any background information on refugees’ mental health or the conditions in which they lived. During my work as a refugee caseworker, our office received limited information for each approved case, usually just basic background information and some medical history for severe cases that required medical attention. In some cases, medical treatments were delayed due to the lack of more comprehensive medical records.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president is required to appoint a Coordinator for Refugee Affairs whose main duties include developing an effective admission policy and coordinating work mechanisms with international partners. This position has the potential to facilitate broader and more effective communication channels among international and domestic agencies. On an international level, the State Department should provide extensive information regarding who is being processed to help local agencies in their long-term planning. This will also allow local organizations to engage with non-governmental partners and local community groups to prepare for refugees’ arrival. On a domestic level, the federal government should resolve any privacy concerns that prevent local organizations from obtaining in-depth reports about important aspects that relate to refugees, including mental health profiles for each upcoming case.
The United States refugee resettlement program should be a source of pride. Since passing the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. has resettled millions of refugees, assisted them to integrate into their new communities, and helped them become self-sufficient. It is important to recognize that after more than three decades, there is an urgent need to rethink our approach and develop a more inclusive and open approach to resettlement.